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The Teacher’s Essential Guide Series

Jim Burke
How to:
• Use Assessment to Improve Instruction
• Increase Engagement & Comprehension
• Design Effective Lessons

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
To America’s newest teachers

Series Editor: Lois Bridges

Development Editor: Dana Truby
Designer: Maria Lilja
Copyeditor: David Klein
Cover photo: Bruce Forrester
Interior photos: Noah Berger/AP and Jim Burke (where noted)

ISBN 13: 978-0-439-93454-1

ISBN 10: 0-439-93454-0

Scholastic Inc. grants teachers permission to photocopy the activity and stationery
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Copyright © 2008 by Jim Burke
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The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Introduction.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Effective Instruction Self-Assessment. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

Instruction That Works

1. Vary Your Instructional Methods and Strategies. . . . . . . . . 7
2. Teach Students How to Think, Learn,
and Remember.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
3. Assess Understanding and Use the Results
to Improve Your Teaching.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
4. Use the Right Tools and Technology
to Enhance Instruction.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45

Classroom Culture
5. Support All Students to Ensure Success. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56
6. Maintain a Safe, Productive Learning Environment.. . . 66

Curriculum Basics
7. Teach Skills and Knowledge in Context.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80
8. Organize Your Instruction Around Big Ideas
and Essential Questions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 92
9. Help Students Make Connections.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
10. Design Lessons and Units for Maximum Learning
and Engagement. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112
contents •

Works Cited.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
“You don’t teach a class. You teach a student.”
—Paul Baker, Integration of Abilities

any of us still think of memorable teachers from
our childhoods, those great ones we remember
throughout much of our adults lives with a sense
of reverence for all they gave us. Such teachers have three
characteristics: they are competent in their subject matter,
care deeply about students and their success, and take on a
distinctive role in the classroom. Though we all aspire to
be memorable teachers, it is effective teachers that we must
strive to become and which our students need us to be.
We cannot say we have taught something if our students
cannot, with some independence and fluency, show us they
learned it by using or doing what we taught them.
The ten elements of effective instruction in this book
are divided into three sections: Instruction That Works,
Classroom Culture, and Curriculum Basics. Each of the ten
elements, drawn from extensive reading and research, as well
as my own daily experience as a classroom teacher, focuses
on guiding principles of effective teaching. Here are the “big
ideas” of teaching that will help you promote understanding
(not just recall), engage students in meaningful inquiry, and
develop students’ ability to master such work in the future.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Before examining what effective teachers do, let’s
highlight some key findings from the National Research
Council (NRC) on how people learn. In 2000, the NRC
identified three key findings:
1. Students come to the classroom with preconcep-
tions about how the world works. If their initial
understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp
the new concepts and information being taught, or
they may learn these concepts in order
to pass a test, but revert to their pre-
conceived ideas outside the classroom.
2. To develop competence in an area
of inquiry, students must: (a) have a
deep foundation of factual knowledge,
Jim Burke

(b) understand facts and ideas in the

context of a conceptual framework,
and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate
retrieval and application.
3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can
help students learn to take control of their own
learning by defining learning goals and monitoring
their progress in achieving them. (Brownsford,
Brown, & Cooking 2000).
Keeping in mind that teaching is a skill that can be
introduction •

learned, let us move on, giving ourselves permission to try,

even to fail, knowing that these are necessary stages if we are
to join the ranks of those effective, even memorable teachers
who inspired us to join this profession in the first place. 

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Effective Instruction
For each of the items below, record your answer between 1 and 5.

1 Never 2 Rarely 3 Sometimes 4 Usually 5 Always

Effective Instruction
o I vary my instructional methods and use a range of
teaching strategies.
o I teach my students how to think and learn.
o I assess students’ understanding and use the results
to improve my instruction.
o I incorporate a variety of tools and technology
to enhance my instruction.

Classroom Culture
o I support all students to ensure their success.
o I maintain a safe and productive learning environment
in my classroom.

Curriculum Basics
o I teach skills and knowledge in context and through
o I organize all instruction around meaningful conversations
and sustained inquiries.
o I make connections to the students’ lives, other studies,
and the world.
o I design lessons and units for maximum learning,
understanding, and engagement.

After completing this self-assessment, identify those areas of

most urgent need. Then go to the corresponding chapter and

learn what you can do to improve in that area.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
That Works
1. Vary Your
Instructional Methods
and Strategies
Kids need variety to stay engaged in their learning. They need
to know that if they can’t learn the lesson one way, you will use
another approach to help them understand whatever you are
teaching. It helps to consider learning like a house that you want
your students, by one means or another, to enter, inhabit, and
eventually own. It makes sense, of course, to bring them in by the
most obvious route: the front door. Yet, that is sometimes locked,
and so students need to know that there are other ways of getting
in, what Gardner (1999) calls alternate “entry points,” which allow
them to use what they know to learn what they do not—yet. This
level of commitment to students’ success pays great dividends in
Instruction that works •

the classroom. You’ll see greater engagement from your students

and, just possibly, a deeper belief in their own efficacy. Your
students will come to realize that you and your class are there to
help them do what many believed they could not. That’s why it’s
important to “differentiate” your instructional content, process, or
products according to students’ needs (Tomlinson 1999).

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Guiding Principles
1. P
 rovide multiple entry points into every subject
or lesson.
2. Employ a range of instructional modes.
3. Use a variety of group formats and configurations.
4. Describe and demonstrate each strategy or technique.
5. D
 evelop students’ background knowledge using
different techniques.

 rovide multiple entry points into

every subject or lesson.
Every student who comes into your class has personal interests,
experiences, and abilities that he or she can use to succeed in
school and life. Yet kids often do not know their own strengths
and needs; nor do they know how to use them to learn. Here are
a few approaches you can use to help students connect with what
you teach:
Analogies: Make comparisons. Daily life in the Civil
War was like. . . (Social Studies)
Stories: Tell a story about a certain experience, focusing
on the choices you had to make along the way. (Health)
 umerical representations: Have your students
examine what happened during the Depression by
graphing data. (Economics)
 isual explanations: Challenge your class to imagine
the characters in Othello are on a football team and
then describe the role of each character. (English)
 ramatic interpretations: Have students role-play
a Supreme Court case based on a constitutional
amendment you are studying. (Government)
Essential questions: Ask the big questions, such as
“Why do living creatures have to die?” (Biology)

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
 ands-on or manipulative techniques: Have students
design and build a city or structure using the shapes and
concepts we have studied lately.
Consider beginning your class with these activities.
Upon entering the classroom, students would see the essential
question and begin writing a response to it. Once students have
grasped the question, you can go on to design students’ learning
experiences in ways that challenge them to:
Make inductions, deductions, and inferences, and
draw conclusions: Have your class review Lincoln’s
major decisions and draw conclusions about what kind
of leader he was, providing specific evidence to support
your analysis. (Social Studies)
Organize information by various principles: Through
discussion, generate stages of moral development, then
have students arrange and apply them to the characters
in a novel. (English)
Repeat a sequence of progressively more difficult tasks:
Give students leveled math problems, perhaps bronze,
silver, gold, so they can see their growing mastery. (Math)
Navigate their way through a carefully designed
messy experience that requires them to troubleshoot
increasingly difficult problems: Challenge students.
Design an ecosystem, adding new complications in
addition to those that naturally occur; require students to
monitor and evaluate data as the experiment unfolds.
Such experiences require some initial understanding or
mastery of the content. You should increase the challenges only
when the students show they are ready for the next level of work.
Instruction that works •

Keep in Mind Your English language learners (ELLs)

rely on you to provide multiple ways into academic
content that is unfamiliar or beyond their capacity to under-
stand. Ask yourself (and your students) what other means you
can use that will help ELLs navigate the material in your class.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Employ a range of instructional modes.
Entry points are the openings through which your students can
gain access to what they need to learn. Instructional modes, on
the other hand, are the techniques you choose to guide their
learning so that the hard work that real understanding requires
can take place. How should you choose which instructional mode
to use? Begin with the question, “How can I design a learning
experience that will lead my students to a full understanding of
what I want them to learn?” Think of modes as similar to tools:
The right tool for the right job gets you where you want to go
(and where your students need to be). Consider these methods
or instructional approaches when you are deciding how to help
students “uncover” the material, which is to say understand, be
able to use, and remember what they learn.

11 Instructional Strategies to Use (Besides Lecturing)

Instructional How It Works
Demonstrate Show students what a successful
performance looks like.

Read to Think Read excerpts or short texts aloud as a

means of introducing a subject or getting
students to think about it from different

Write to Learn Have students write formally or

informally to discover what they know
about a subject, or to synthesize their

Investigation Design an inquiry for your students in

the library, classroom, or computer lab
that asks them to find and make sense of

Simulation Provide a range of roles students can

play in reader’s theater, mock trial, etc.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Construct Provide materials and ask students to
design and create an original project—a
model, a project, or a poem.

Discussion Create a structured, purposeful discussion

of the material in different configurations—
pairs, trios, or large groups.

Reciprocal Ask students to teach what they have

Teaching learned to others in a group or the class
as a whole.

Problem-Solving Place students in the middle of a

problem they must solve using their
understanding of the material.

Generate Require students to be generative

thinkers who come up with their own
questions and problems, answers and

Reflect Ask students to reflect on their learning

process to increase their understanding
of what they learned as well as how they
learned it.

Tech Note! Use technology in ways that require

kids to inquire, investigate, or create. Tech
approaches can be productive so long as you choose
them with the end in mind and not merely as electronic
Instruction that works •


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Use a variety of group formats
and configurations.
Because people are naturally social, it makes sense to use
this characteristic to help them learn. Studies consistently
find groups, if used effectively, are one of the most powerful
instructional strategies for improving comprehension and
increasing engagement. Collaborative learning also proves ideal
for English language learners who need frequent opportunities
to practice their spoken language and hear how others use it.
Research consistently shows that specific grouping strategies,
such as literature circles (Freeman and Freeman 2007) and
reciprocal teaching (Palincsar and Brown 1984), are effective
with heterogeneous learners in different subject areas. The idea
of learning together is not new, of course: People have always
gathered in circles to solve the problems they face, realizing, as
the sayings go, that “two heads are better than one,” and “many
hands make light work.” As Margaret Wheatly wrote, “Human
beings have always sat in circles and councils to do their best
thinking, and to develop strong and trusting relationships”
(2002). Here are some guidelines for using groups to enhance
instruction in your class:

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
 rovide structure and establish a clear outcome for each
group, holding students accountable as both a group and
individuals. In English, for example, a teacher could use
small groups to have students generate a list of words
that describe a character, then vote on the one that best
describes the character; and find evidence from the text,
that backs up this one “best” word.
Arrange groups heterogeneously unless students have
common needs or problems that can be more efficiently
addressed through targeted group instruction (e.g., ELLs
needing a quick tutorial on a specific topic). In my room,
for example, I will ask students to form groups based on
whatever ensures the right combination for a given task
(e.g., “Everyone form groups of four made up of no more
than two boys, and the group must include two people
from the opposite side of the room.”)
Evaluate students’ group work and have them reflect
on their own processes to identify what they do well and
what they could improve on as a group and as participants
in that group. Ask them, for example, to list what they
contributed to the work and to evaluate its effect on the
final result. Post your group evaluation questions in the
classroom to help students keep them in mind.
Avoid overusing groups by carefully considering whether
the task would be more effective if done individually.
In a math class, for instance, students can benefit from
working together to solve complex problems, but they also
need to work independently for the concepts to take hold.
You should always have a clear instructional rationale for
groups, even if it is, “It’s Friday afternoon—working in
Instruction that works •

groups will energize them.”

Use both formal and informal grouping techniques for
different purposes that allow students to work with different
classmates. Some days I say, “Turn to a neighbor and
compare your interpretation with theirs,” but on other
occasions, when students are reading different stories, for
example, I might have them meet with those reading the
same story to discuss a specific question.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
This last point merits more discussion. Both group formats,
formal and informal, serve the common goal of providing
powerful learning experiences, but there are some important
Informal Groups: Such groups can be pairs or small
groups of three or four, but are temporary, usually formed
by students who sit next to or around the student for
the sake of a quick conversation about a problem, a
text, or an idea. Informal groups serve to generate ideas
and solutions, clarify thinking, respond to others’ work,
or compare interpretations and processes. Finally, they
are well suited as a way to follow up on individual work
or a class discussion since they provide a context for
students to elaborate on the ideas that arose in full-class
discussion or while doing an assignment individually.
Formal Groups: While informal groups might work
together for anywhere from one minute to a full period,
formal groups are more structured, with each person
having a specific role, such as the discussion director
in a literature circle, for example. These groups are
more assignment-based, existing for the length of a
project, a sustained inquiry or experiment, or the time
it takes to read a book as part of a literature circle. Also,
14 there is a clearly defined outcome for which people are

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
accountable as both individuals and a group; this sense of
“we must hang together or we will all hang separately” is
important in such groups.

Tech Note! Online forums such as blogs and

threaded discussions offer powerful new ways to use
or extend classroom groups. Creating one of these virtual
forums can be of great benefit to ELLs, shy students, or those
who need more time to formulate their responses during
group discussions.

Two other aspects of grouping deserve clarification. Research

consistently shows that when teachers use groups, group size and
group selection make a critical difference. The following table
provides an overview of the different types of groups and their uses:

Use this If You Want. . . Have students. . .


Pairs (2) informal, quick turn to a neighbor and

conversations where confer.
students can compare

Small (3–4) deeper discussion work with their

from several assigned mixed-level
perspectives, group.

Large (5–7) more student blend assigned groups

participation than or count off to create
full-class discussion quick groupings.
Instruction that works •

Full Class to debrief with the participate from their

whole class about seats.
what they discussed in
groups or to survey the
whole class’s response
to material.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Ability grouping is only appropriate and effective when
students share an instructional need; grouping low-performing
students with low-performing students leads to even lower
performance. More importantly, mixed-ability groups consistently
show the greatest instructional gains. Useful ways to arrange
groups heterogeneously include sorting kids by birth month,
personal interests, assigned numbers, number of siblings, favorite
animal, or alphabet.

Think Pair Square Share

One of the most effective techniques for using informal

groups is commonly referred to as think-pair-square-share.
Students begin by working individually, solving the problem,
responding to the text, and making their initial hypotheses.
Once they finish this step, they pair up and discuss their work,
comparing solutions and ideas, then borrowing new ideas from
each other as they arise. Next, the pair “squares up” with another
pair to expand and elaborate on the discussion before returning
to a full-class discussion facilitated by the teacher, who can then
address enduring questions and gaps in students’ understanding
before moving to the next phase of the lesson. A history
teacher, for example, might assign individual students different
constitutional amendments to read and interpret, then ask them
to generate an example to illustrate the amendment’s principle.
After that, they pair with others who studied similar amendments
and discuss as a pair, until finally the whole class engages in a
discussion of constitutional law and how it works.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
New Teacher Note While groups are an important and
powerful strategy, they are only as effective as their
implementation. If allowed to choose their own groups all
the time, kids will, of course, gravitate to their friends,
which often undermines the social and academic benefits
of working with others. Be clear and consistent in assigning
groups and ensuring that students stay and work in those
assigned groups.

Describe and demonstrate each

strategy or technique.
Students come to school to learn what they don’t already know.
The better they understand what we expect them to do—how
to play a certain role in a group, how to conduct an experiment,
how to use a tool—the more likely they are to succeed. As the
Chinese proverb says, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may
remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” To prepare them for
their “involvement,” we must model what to do so they will know
what to do when asked to do it themselves. When working with
new techniques or strategies, or asking students to apply those
they already know at a higher level, you may need to describe and
demonstrate before, during, and after.
Before using the strategies, students need to know what
an effective performance looks like.
During, you need to clarify and refine students’
application of the technique.
After they finish, it is often beneficial, even necessary,
to have students reflect on their use of the technique or
Instruction that works •

strategy to help them improve their application next time.

For example, I will begin by modeling for students how to use
it, then follow up by having them reflect on how they used
the graphic organizer and how it helped (or didn’t help) them.
Through modeling, we demystify for students those tasks that
they may think are beyond them because they do not know how
to break them into steps. As the following suggestions show,

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
language plays a crucial role in such effective instruction. When
describing or demonstrating, consider the following:
Use “warm language” to help students understand and
engage with the content. To “bring students inside,” you
must be explicit and complete in your descriptions and
demonstrations, raising powerfully worded questions and
extending invitations (as opposed to issuing orders). “Cool
language” serves to remind and summarize; warm language
invites and stimulates interest and confidence. (Bain 2004)
Demonstrate the language you want them to use
when writing or speaking by using it yourself; extend
this support by using sentence starters for different
thought processes so that students learn to use this
language in context.

Sentence Starters to Kick-Start Student Thinking

Cognitive Strategy Sentence Starter
Goal Setting “My purpose is. . . ”
“My top priority is. . . ”
Tapping Prior “I already know that. . . ”
Visualizing “If this were a movie. . . ”
Making Connections “This reminds me of. . . ”
Summarizing “In a nutshell, this says that. . . ”
Adopting an “I can relate to this author
Alignment because. . . ”
Clarifying “To understand better, I need to
know more about. . . ”
Revising Meaning “At first I thought ___, but now
I. . . ”
Reflecting and “A conclusion I’m drawing is. . . ”
Evaluating “I like/don’t like ___, because. . . ”

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Provide clear, sequential explanations of what to do
and how to do it, reinforcing the teaching, if necessary,
by providing a handout or listing these steps on the
board. When first offering such explanations, avoid
specialized vocabulary that might confuse or intimidate.
Instead, use more familiar, informal language. In a
lab, for instance, you might begin by emphasizing the
importance of following the proper sequence of steps in
a particular procedure; in addition, you might give them
a sheet with numbered steps they can check off as they
complete each step. As the experiment unfolds, you
could introduce specialized vocabulary for them to use
when describing what they observe.
Introduce big concepts and basic principles through
stories or analogies to illustrate and provoke connec-
Instruction that works •

tions; as students show initial understanding, add details

and complexity; when they are ready, replace the familiar
language or analogies with more specific and complex
terms and concepts you want them to understand and use.
In a health class, for example, a teacher could begin a unit
on addiction by asking students how video games or cell
phones are similar to a drug. Then, as the class moves into

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
the unit, the teacher introduces more specialized vocabu-
lary related to addiction.
 se visual devices—overheads, whiteboards,
chalkboards, Smartboards, LCDs—to explain and
demonstrate, serving as a visual reference for the
processes and solutions your class generates throughout
the discussion.

Keep in Mind English language learners are most

successful when teachers have high expectations
and do not deny access to challenging content and when
teachers explicitly teach and model the academic skills
and the thinking, learning, reading, writing, and studying
strategies all students need to know. (Olson and Land 2007)

Develop students’ background knowledge

using different techniques.
Background knowledge, especially about academic subjects, is
essential to success in school. Background knowledge includes
subject-specific knowledge about procedures and processes, as
well as facts and related vocabulary; it also includes relevant
knowledge of historical events, mythology, the Bible—what E. D.
Hirsch (2006) has termed “cultural literacy.” Deep background
knowledge is strongly correlated with adult success, according to
Marzano (2004). Background knowledge means what a person
already knows about a subject. While a student might feel sure
that the knowledge is accurate, it might be outright incorrect,
based on belief instead of evidence. Effective teachers understand
that a student’s background knowledge is a part of him or her. It
connects to the student’s self-image and self-esteem. Developing
students’ background knowledge always involves determining
what they think they know about a subject and creating a
learning experience that will help them affirm or revise what
they know in light of new experiences. At the same time, it
requires providing a safe and supportive environment in which


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
they can say what they think they know and revise their thinking
in public without fear of humiliation. Marzano (2006) identifies
two aspects of background knowledge: the student’s ability to
process—understand and remember—such knowledge, and the
type and quality of such information as it relates to the academic
context in which the student must use it. Some argue that such
processing is fixed, genetically determined, but Marzano notes
studies that show cognitive processing can be improved through
such techniques as cognitively guided instruction. You can
enhance your students’ background knowledge and their ability to
access and use that knowledge by doing the following:
Assess what students already know about the subject
you are studying by having them write about and discuss it
with others to raise initial questions the teaching can help
answer. In a science class, for example, you could begin by
asking students to explain what evolution is and how it
works, providing examples to illustrate what they mean.
Provide direct instruction in a way that will prepare your
students to understand and remember the bigger ideas you
want them to learn. This is especially important when
it comes to academic vocabulary students need in order
to understand a text or complete an assignment. When
teaching about tone in relation to a poem, I demonstrate
the meaning of several words and show how to use them.
Use indirect means to develop such background
knowledge by having students read articles or textbooks,
watch videos, investigate a subject on the Internet, or
interview people who may have important knowledge
about that subject. Students studying the Holocaust, for
example, can go to the National Holocaust Museum Web
Instruction that works •

site, where they can view and read stories of survivors, as

well as see photographs of those who survived.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Jim Burke
I ncorporate the relevant background knowledge into
multiple lessons, through multiple means; increasing the
frequency of exposure and the amount of information
improves understanding and recall of the information.
When introducing key terms and ideas, first discuss, then
post the terms to the wall for reference.
Provide activities to enrich the background
knowledge: field trips, guest speakers, performances,
programs like Facing History, or ACCESS (Burke 2005).
When teaching health, for example, invite a speaker
from a local health food store or a culinary academy to
speak about food.
It may seem obvious, but one aspect of background knowledge
that deserves attention and emphasis is your own knowledge about
and passion for the subject you teach. The more you know about
any subject, the more you have to draw on to help your students
understand and remember it. If you have a deep understanding
of some aspect of geometry or physics, for example, and kids in
your class have deep knowledge of a sport like baseball, you can
take advantage of your fluency to connect your subject to your


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
students’ areas of expertise and thus help them better understand
the material. Famed physicist Richard Feynman was renowned
for his use of stories and analogies to help students understand
concepts that first eluded them, drawing on the students’
background knowledge in one area to help them understand and
remember new, unfamiliar material. More important, I suspect, was
the evident joy he found in doing and in learning about his field,
which is something we should all convey to our students, not just
through a lesson but by drawing upon all that we continue to learn.
Walt Saito, a legendary math teacher at my school, was famous for
telling his students about the math problems he created for himself
over the weekends, or while traveling to school on the train. As
one student told a researcher studying my class, “It’s weird, but Mr.
Burke tells us all about what
he reads all the time. He
actually talks about books
and all that stuff like it really
matters and that makes us
think it’s more important.”

Instruction that works •


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
2. Teach Students
How to Think, Learn,
and Remember
While learning is natural to all of us, academic learning often is
not. We think of such learning in the context of a “discipline”
or we say students must develop the discipline needed to think,
learn, and remember information, ideas, and processes specific to
our different content areas. Certain habits of mind come into play
in all school subjects; however, each one demands that students
develop what Gardner (1999) calls a “disciplined mind.” Such
thinking requires guidance, which is where you come in. You make
the decisions about where to begin, which problems or texts to try
first. Through such scaffolding and guidance, you develop students’
independence and cultivate the habits of mind necessary to grapple
with progressively complex material. This kind of instruction
demands a solid understanding of the brain and how it works—
the chemical-emotional basis of learning and memory that makes
those synapses fire and connect as they work to understand and,
later, to recall. Metaphors abound when it comes to thinking about
these cognitive processes, but the words that recur most frequently
in my investigation all evoke the idea of intellectually wrestling
with the content, during which the learner comes to know the
deep meaning and structure of the material. As you will read in
other chapters, learning is also a social process; thus, it is ideal to
have students work in robust ways, “grappling” with and struggling
to understand data, texts, or problems. Finally, it is perhaps useful
to think of the mind as the gardener does the soil, asking yourself
what you can do as the teacher to help students learn to prepare
and maintain their own soil, allowing them to grow and harvest
their own learning, according to their own style and strengths.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Guiding Principles
1. B
 e methodical and strategic when teaching students
to learn, think, and remember.
2. C
 ultivate different types and aspects of intelligence in
all students.
3. I nstill key habits of mind in students to help them
succeed in school and life.
4. I nitiate students into the thinking specific to your
subject matter and discipline.

Be methodical and strategic when teaching

students to learn, think, and remember.
How we learn, think, and remember is as familiar and visible to
us as the operating software running in the background of our
computers. That is, we don’t
worry about it so long as
it works. Sadly however,
like that software, we often
find ourselves at the limits
of our capacity to process
and store information, and
we have no choice but to
“upgrade” our system. So
it is with our cognitive
processes: They are fine until
we start encountering more
difficult material, at which
Instruction that works •

point we need to understand the limits of our thinking so we can

improve our capacity to understand and remember these complex
ideas. Thus, our students should encounter new and more difficult
ideas, texts, and problems each day as they burrow deeper into the
material. The question is, can thinking, learning, and memory be
taught? Can intelligence and memory be enhanced, expanded?


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Jim Burke
Cultivate different types and aspects
of intelligence in all students.
Einstein avoided words and numbers, finding in images and
“thought experiments” (i.e., visual problems, such as what would
happen while riding a light beam alongside a train) a way to
understand and express his insights about the universe. Effective
teachers help their students, even those who are not Einsteins,
identify and develop their individual talents; they also help them
acquire or improve upon those talents they lack. Such effective
teachers make room for students to explore their gifts in order for
them to better understand the potential and processes of their own
mind. Many recent books emphasize the importance of developing
“different minds” (Gardner 2006; Pink 2006) and ways of thinking
(Sternberg 1997), which Kelley (2005) calls “faces of innovation.”
Kelley quotes a claim published in The Economist, that “innovation
is now recognized as the single most important ingredient in any
modern economy.” Thus, you will be most effective when you make
use of students’ different capacities, for then your instruction meets
not only the needs of the individual student but the society as a
whole. In this sense, effective instruction is grounded in both the
personal and the public worlds. Reflecting the complex demands
of these different worlds, Kelley identifies ten “personas,” which
he divides into three categories—learning personas, organizing
personas, and building personas. Each is a way of thinking or
working that students need to explore. We should create regular

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
opportunities to incorporate these personas into our curriculum.
While each persona draws on and develops different skills, Pink
(2006) argues that strong teachers can and should address them all
through an integrated, dynamic curriculum.
Here are Kelley’s personas, followed by my summary of his
ideas, as they would apply to education:

Learning Personas
The Anthropologist: Functions
as an observer, developing
insights into people, cultures, and
environments, which he or she
uses to solve problems. In health
class, for example, students might
create and conduct a survey
about the time they spend online
or on cell phones, and then use
that data to show that excessive
use has academic, personal, and
Jim Burke

health costs.
The Experimenter: Learns through trial and error, taking
calculated risks, and creating a series of prototypes; these
yield information the experimenter uses to create new
solutions. In an environmental biology class, for example,
teachers might ask students to study global warming by
creating a model of what will happen under different
scenarios (e.g., as it grows progressively hotter) and how
such conditions will affect a specific ecosystem.
The Cross-Pollinator: Ranges across subjects, fields, and
domains, then translates what is learned into actions and
Instruction that works •

solutions. The teacher might ask students to use ideas

from one field (e.g., evolution [biology], the free hand
[economics], a certain mathematical principle) to explain
something in another field. A student in my English
class, for example, used a very complex mathematical
equation to isolate and explain how the plot and themes
interacted with each other in a novel.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Organizing Personas
The Hurdler: Relishes overcoming obstacles and solving
problems encountered during the learning process, often
bending the rules to come up with innovative solutions.
One might, for example, appoint such a person to head
a group project in which you expect various obstacles
to arise.
The Collaborator: Brings people together and leads from
within the group, helping others use their talents to solve
a common problem that leads to success for all. When
using literature circles, for example, you might appoint
a student to the role of discussion director.
The Director: Gathers people and works with them in
ways that inspire new thinking and creativity. This is
often a key role for you to play as you move around and
consult with individuals or groups, using your knowledge
to challenge them to go deeper or be more creative on a
particular assignment.

Jim Burke


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Building Personas
The Experience Architect: Loves to design experiences
that do more than just convey information; creates
experiences that change, inspire, and move people to
achieve specific outcomes. In a health class, for example,
such students would thrive if given the chance to create
an ad campaign on subjects like drugs, healthy eating,
relationships, or racism.
The Set Designer: Responds to the challenge of creating
a stage, transforming a space into an environment that
achieves a particular effect on an intended audience. In
English or history class, where students might reenact
events from history or portions of stories, such students
respond to the opportunity to create props and sets.
The Caregiver: Anticipates and addresses the needs of
customers and coworkers; motivated to provide for the
emotional and physical well-being of others to ensure the
success of an individual or a group. In many academic
classes, such students appreciate the opportunity to work
with others who might need additional help. Ask this
kind of student to work with a couple of ELLs or perhaps a
student you know who has reading difficulties.
The Storyteller: Maintains morale and develops
understanding by telling compelling stories to inspire others
or communicate specific values or ideas. Provide such a
student with the option to create a compelling story—in
writing or using different media—as part of a study of
World War II, teen health, or environmental biology.
While each persona draws on and develops different skills,
Pink (2006) argues that strong teachers can and should address
Instruction that works •

them all through an integrated, dynamic curriculum.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Instill key habits of mind in students to help
them succeed in school and life.
Effective teachers, like great coaches, shape their students’
abilities and processes into habits, achieving a level of fluency
that fosters higher-level performances. Such “habits of mind”
are essential to academic and adult success, but can only be
inculcated through instruction that affords rich opportunities to
learn and apply them, as well as receive the feedback needed to
refine those habits. Key habits of mind you should teach your
students include to:
Gather and evaluate information from multiple sources
and senses. In a history class, for example, students
could gather and evaluate information from different
sources, including blogs and Web sites, on issues such
as immigration, then use what they learn to support
arguments in presentations, papers, or discussions.
Respond critically to what they read, view, hear, and
experience. In an American history class, for example,
students could examine the rhetorical devices used in
World War II propaganda posters to persuade citizens to
save gas or buy bonds.
Take responsibility for their own learning, including
how they work with others, seek help when they need it,
and advocate for what they need in order to succeed.
Experiment with new ideas and perspectives. In
English, for example, you can have students write about
the same subject from different perspectives to inspire
new thinking and refine their original arguments on a
Use their knowledge of themselves and the world to
learn and remember. A physics teacher might use, for
example, a student’s interest in skateboarding to help
him understand certain principles.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Be flexible in their thinking and processes. Students
often want to fix on an interpretation of a literary text.
To teach them more flexible but no less responsible
reading, ask them to find evidence for other
interpretations of the same text.
 eflect on their thinking and processes in order to
better understand how their minds work when trying
to do, learn, or remember something. This might mean
asking students to answer such questions as, “What
questions did I ask to arrive at that final result?” or
“What techniques did I use and how did they lead to
this result?”
Here are some other, more general suggestions for getting
students to be more generative and reflective thinkers, while at
the same time teaching these skills and developing these abilities:
Ask students to provide a variety of alternative
explanations, interpretations, or solutions, and to explain
the strengths and weaknesses of each, using evidence to
support their thinking.
Provide students time to “mess around” with ideas,
materials, or processes and to think about not just what
they came up with, but how they did so.
 reate fun but educational constraints within which
students must work to solve problems or create, thus
forcing them to be flexible and “think outside the box.”
Require students to explain why certain readings,
interpretations, solutions, or results are invalid or
incorrect as opposed to always focusing on the right
answer (a variation is to focus on what students do not
Instruction that works •

understand instead of what they do).

Generate questions students can use to approach, solve,
or explain a text or problem.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Initiate students into the thinking specific
to your subject matter and discipline.
Each subject comes with its own language, both formal and
informal. To discuss poems, novels, or essays with any precision,
students need literary and rhetorical terms. So it is with all subject
areas now, for between the language of the discipline and the
precise terms reflected in state standards, students must learn how
to read, use, and understand the disciplinary discourses of science,
humanities, social sciences, mathematics, health, and other
subject areas. It is not just
the language, however, that
students must learn; they
must also work and think as
scientists, writers, historians,
and mathematicians in these
respective fields.
Effective teachers
initiate students into the
language and ways of
thinking specific to a given
discipline by:
Modeling how practitioners within their subject area
speak, work, and think, as they go about “doing” science,
history, or writing.
Providing students lists of discipline-specific words
or sentence starters (on handouts, the board, or posters)
they can use to explain a procedure, discuss an author’s
tone, or advance an argument based on the Constitution.
Bringing in examples of how professionals function
in a given field by showing video footage of the scientist
thinking, a sequence of rough drafts that illustrate the
writer’s composing process, or reading about the steps the
individual followed to arrive at a solution; you can also
invite such people to speak in your class.
Teaching students directly, in context, the academic
vocabulary needed to do the work and understand what
they read in a subject area.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
3. Assess Understanding
and Use the Results
to Improve Your
Long before video cameras existed, my tennis coach used an 8mm
camera to assess my game. Unlike today’s cameras, it did not offer
immediate feedback; we had to wait a week for the film to be
processed, then we had to find a projector, a screen, and a dark
room in which to view the film. Nevertheless, it offered both of
us relevant, useful feedback for improving my game. In contrast,
winning or losing a match was like a report card: if I won, it was
an A; if I lost, an F, but the result was not educative. The camera,
that visual feedback of my performance, however, transformed a
loss or a win into a lesson that my coach could use to adjust his
instruction and show me what he meant when he said, “You’re
dropping your wrist on your backhand shots.” My backhand
immediately improved once I could finally see what he had
been saying for so long. Today, of course, using a video camera
to capture and analyze a performance is just standard procedure;
back then it was a revelation. The same approach should be taken
with assessment in the classroom, with the teacher adapting
instruction based on feedback during the process of teaching a
clearly defined idea or process that is important to the learner.
Assessment is not to be confused with grading. Students
typically look only at the grade, ignoring any comments they
Instruction that works •

don’t consider useful to improving their performance. Nor should

assessment necessarily be equated with testing, though tests are
clearly one means of assessing what students know and can do.
Effective instruction uses assessment to clarify what should be
taught, to determine how much progress your students have made,
and to show you how you can use this information to inform
and improve instruction. In short, assessment should be used
to help both student and teacher learn. It should be purposeful,

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
not punitive; consistent instead of confusing; not mundane, but
meaningful; and aligned with the content standards, as opposed to
the teacher’s personal passions.

Guiding Principles
 ssess students before teaching, to determine their
1. A
current knowledge and skill levels.
2. U
 se multiple means and measures to assess students’
3. D
 efine the objectives and criteria clearly before you
begin to teach the lesson or unit.
4. T
 each students to assess their own progress through
goal-setting and reflection.
5. P
 rovide useful, specific, meaningful feedback
throughout the learning cycle.

Assess students before teaching,

to determine their current knowledge
and skill levels.
Effective instruction begins where students are and develops in
them the knowledge and skills they need to get where they need
to be. Some students enter your class with a wide range of personal
and academic experiences which prepare some of them to do
the work you will ask of them, while others will have no prior
exposure to the topic or task. Teaching students who are unaware
of what they already know is both inefficient and ineffective. It
is inefficient for several reasons. First, you may waste time on
material they already know when you could be building upon that
foundation. Second, your students may know nothing about the
subject, so your initial instruction will have to be repeated when
you circle back to teach them the necessary information or skills
you assumed they already had. Such assessments do not need
to take a long time; most can, in fact, be conducted informally,
through a variety of quick measures that give you a sense of

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
where to begin and how to adapt your instruction in light of your
academic goals for students. You can determine your students’
needs before they begin by:
Giving them a pretest you create or purchase from a
commercial publisher. At the beginning of the year, for
example, you could give students a test based on their
state standards; such tests are commonly provided by
commercial publishers now.
Observing them working on an
assignment that gives you some sense of
their initial level of understanding or ability.
In my Advanced Placement Literature class,
for example, I give students a difficult poem
the first week and watch them work through
it on their own and in groups to evaluate
how they work and think.
Using a graphic organizer, such as the
KWL, which asks students to explain what
they know, want to know, and what they
Jim Burke

learned by the end of the assignment. Thus,

a social studies teacher might begin a unit
on the Depression by using a KWL organizer to
find out what students know.
Looking at informal writing, such as notebooks, responses,
and drafts that offer insights into next steps; you can also
have then fill out an “exit card” on which they explain
their understanding of the material and give the card to
you as they leave. In a science class, for example, students
might write down three bullets summarizing key ideas from
that day’s lesson or a lab they worked on.
Instruction that works •

 reparing a class discussion with the primary purpose

of determining what students know about a certain
subject; for example, give them cards they can hold up
to indicate their understanding (yes/no, green/red) at
specific junctures in the lesson. In health, for instance,
you might survey students about their knowledge of sleep
and sleep-related behavior.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Keep in Mind ELLs often enter the class with a
wide range of school experiences and levels of
academic knowledge, depending on their previous access to
formal schooling. Obviously, ELLs who had access to school
in their home country face a different set of challenges from
those of the ELLs who have never attended school. Prior to
beginning a new unit or assignment, take time to find out
whether your students have academic skills such as taking
notes, outlining, researching—or whatever skills might be
necessary for the unit you are about to begin. Also, consider
what specialized academic vocabulary they must know to do
the required work.

Use multiple means and measures to assess

students’ performance.
Assessment seems to come down to several complex but useful
• What are the means by which we can best determine
the extent of a student’s knowledge and skill in a
specific area?
• Given the constraints of time within which we always
work, which of the possible assessments is the most
appropriate for this situation?
• And, finally, what are we willing to accept as evidence
that a student has learned what we taught?
As a teacher, you know some days are better than others;
thus, you know how unfair it would be to have an administrator
suddenly show up to evaluate your performance on a bad day
and, based on that single observation, assess your effectiveness
as a teacher. Effective assessment, therefore, requires that we use
different means to measure what students know and can do before,
during, and after we teach them. Improve your teaching by using
these three different assessments to meet the current needs of your
students in light of the content standards you are teaching:


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Diagnostic Done before you begin to actively teach,
these assessments help you create a learning profile of
each student by giving you information on what he or
she knows and can do. Such information is essential
in helping you determine what content to teach first,
what methods are most appropriate, and how you
should organize the instructional sequence. Diagnostic
assessments are not graded; that is, students might get
a low score but the score is not entered as a grade that
would punish students for what they do not yet know.
In my AP English class, for example, I give students a
test on literary terms to see how much they know at the
beginning of the year.
Formative Used during the instructional sequence,
formative assessment is an ongoing measure of
students’ progress toward specific learning goals. Such
measures give specific information about individual
student performance, which you can use to adjust your
instruction; the information on such assessments also
provides useful information to the students for improving
their performance. Formative assessments can be both
formal (quizzes and exams) and informal (observations,
discussions, journals, interviews, having one student
restate another’s ideas). Such assessments may be graded,
but can also be used simply as feedback without being
graded. When deciding what kind of assessment to use,
consider the context and what would most promote
learning. History teachers might, for example, use one
or more of these formative measures to assess students’
understanding of key ideas about the Civil War.
Summative Used after the instructional unit is over,
Instruction that works •

summative assessments evaluate the extent to which the

student learned the material you taught. These typically
culminate in some performance or product that measures
understanding and mastery of the content standards.
Formal measures include a major exam (e.g., multiple
choice, short answer, essay), a project, or a performance
that provides an authentic assessment of what students
learned. Summative assessments are graded, ideally using

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Jim Burke
criteria established up front, so students knew what they
were expected to learn and how they would have to show
that learning. In an environmental science class, for
example, students could take a traditional exam or they
could give a detailed multimedia presentation showing
all they had learned during the unit on hurricanes.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all you are expected to
accomplish, yet assessment is only useful if it is effective. As
you know from students’ performance on many state-mandated
tests, motivation is a key factor in both learning and assessment.
McTighe and O’Connor (2005) write that, “students are more
likely to put forth the required effort when there is:
Task clarity: When they clearly understand the learning
goal and know how teachers will evaluate their learning
 elevance: When they think the learning goals and
assessments are meaningful and worth learning
 otential for success: When they believe they can
successfully learn and meet the evaluative expectations.”


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Keep in Mind Some students may find it hard to
express themselves verbally or in writing and may
need alternative ways to show what they have learned. ELLs,
for example, may not yet have the language to do what you
have asked but, if given the chance to show what they have
learned by some other means, will be more likely to succeed.
Whenever possible, offer alternative assessments or options,
such as the opportunity to show understanding orally or
through visual media, which allow students to be measured
according to their strengths.

Define the objectives and criteria clearly

before you begin to teach the lesson or unit.
We all need a map to guide us and a destination in mind to
give us some means by which to make decisions, to evaluate the
importance of different information. For teachers this means their
state’s content standards; yet it also means those other lessons,
ideas, and skills we want our students to learn along the way. By
defining the objectives and criteria for your students, you define
them for yourself and thereby take the crucial step that leads
to more effective instruction. Without such an instructional
compass, we feel like Yogi Berra who warned, “If you don’t
know where you are going you will end up somewhere else.”
Assessment, if used to improve instruction, asks you to begin with
the end in mind, so your instructional sequence—the materials,
methods, and measures—will lead to that result. Yet students
cannot easily work toward an end they cannot understand
or see; for this reason, it is essential to clarify for them what
successful performance on assignments looks like. By defining the
Instruction that works •

instructional objectives and the criteria by which those results

will be evaluated, you give them, and yourself, a useful means by
which to evaluate the importance of different information and
thus prepare for a successful performance at the unit’s conclusion.
The primary source for these objectives is, of course, your
state standards or, in the case of Advanced Placement classes,
the College Board; effective instruction aligns itself with the

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
content standards appropriate to your class. You can define these
objectives and establish the criteria by:
Using the assignment sheet to identify the specific
learning objectives they should master by the end of the
unit or lesson. At the top of the handout for students’
summer reading essay, for example, I list the specific
goals of the assignment so that they know what I am
looking for and what matters most.
Posting the objectives in clear, student-friendly
language on the board to keep in mind what it is you
are trying to accomplish. A biology teacher might, for
instance, list the goal of identifying the parts of a cell
as part of students’ lab that day.
Demonstrating for students what a successful
performance looks like, so that they will know what
they are trying to learn to do. A shop teacher might, for
example, demonstrate how to use a certain technique
when using a power tool so that students see how to do
it and what the final result looks like.
Providing examples that you or previous students
created, so that students see what the final result looks
like. If possible, show several different examples, so that
students can understand what distinguishes an excellent
performance from one that is merely proficient from one
40 that is unsuccessful. I often make copies of essays and other

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
writing assignments to use as exemplars in my class, then
put them on the overhead and verbally annotate them.
Giving students the scoring rubric or criteria that
will be used to evaluate their performance before you
begin the unit or lesson so they know what is expected
of them. A history teacher might give students such a
rubric for an upcoming debate.

New Teacher Note! Ask your colleagues for examples

of student work or samples of the different assess-
ments they use; these give you something to respond to
when creating your own.

Teach students to assess their own progress

through goal-setting and reflection.
It falls to us to evaluate the quality and progress of our own work,
as it does to other adults in their fields. Such self-assessment
is common among those who are driven to improve their
performance. Athletes crave information, using scores, times, and
other relevant data to refine their performance. Businesses and
salespeople constantly seek and use information to improve their
methods, markets, and products. Such information can then be
used—must be used in many fields and professions—to set goals
that will lead to even better results. One cannot achieve these
results, however, without the opportunity to reflect on the data in
light of the methods used. In the end, what we realize, and what
we must help students realize, is that individuals are responsible
for their own success whether they are salespeople, athletes, law
enforcement officers, students, or teachers. You can teach students
Instruction that works •

to assess themselves by:

Asking them to set personal goals at different points
throughout a unit or lesson—before, during, and after—
related to the larger objectives you spelled out at the
beginning. Such goals should be personal and specific, as well
as measurable. An English teacher might, for example, ask
students to set a goal of using no passive verbs in a piece of
writing as part of a larger unit of effective writing. 41

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Pausing at appropriate opportunities to assess
progress toward their own goals, specific benchmarks,
or those objectives you established at the beginning. Such
self-assessments can be done in journals, on worksheets,
or index cards, which might then be turned in to you so
you might monitor their progress as well as their ability
to evaluate their own work. Students in a chemistry
class, for example, might write up an interim report to
present to the class on their results so far, and the possible
implications of these results.
Using a rubric to evaluate students’ progress toward
these established criteria; in addition, you might consider
having them reflect on which strategies or methods
have been more or least effective in helping them reach
these objectives. In an economics class, for example,
in which students must compare two theories, students
might examine the devices and strategies they used to
create an effective comparison. Rubrics, however, can
be overused, preventing students from receiving more
specific, responsive feedback. And sometimes they are
just not effective.
Creating time for students to reflect on the choices,
actions, or strategies that led to that result. Such
metacognitive reflection about their process, products,
or performance can be done by writing or discussing with
others what they did, how they did it, and why they did it
that way. Also, ask students to use more than one process,
then evaluate which one was best and why, in light of the
results. In a math class, for example, have students reflect
on the process by which they solved a particular problem,
focusing not only on the decisions they made, but the
alternative ways they could have solved it.
Having students compare their work on this assignment
with that of similar but earlier work to gain a clearer
measure of their progress in this particular area of their
learning. Students in an English class, for example, might
look at earlier drafts of a particular paper or papers to see
how they have progressed as writers.

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Provide useful, specific, meaningful feedback
throughout the learning cycle.
Feedback received after a performance can be useful for future
assignments, but if it cannot be used to improve performance
on the current assignment, it loses its value. For a student
who struggles to solve a problem in mathematics, for instance,
effective feedback provides the student with insight into how to
solve not just the problem at hand, but that type of problem in
general. So it is with problems, performances, and processes in all
subject areas. Moreover, the feedback, if it is to make a difference,
should come throughout the process. Think about how video
games and other simulations offer immediate and precise feedback
about what the player did right or wrong; such information
allows a player to improve by avoiding a mistake or repeating a
certain action in the future. Feedback comes in a variety of forms:
written, spoken, or visual. Of course, it takes time to give such
information to students; all the more difficult if you have short
periods or large classes. Still, few efforts make a bigger difference
than providing such feedback. You can provide students useful
feedback on their performance by:
Monitoring work in class on an assignment and noting
those areas in which students are doing well and where
they need guidance. Once you have gathered the
performance information, have students stop working,
so you can provide feedback, including specific examples
gleaned from class that day. In a science class, for
example, take time to make observations about how
students are using the instruments and conducting their
experiments, pointing out particular actions that are
good or should be avoided.
Instruction that works •

Collecting their work in the middle of the process—

such as, a rough draft of a paper that will be revised—
and giving specific feedback to each student on a few
key areas, or skimming through all the papers to find
those key areas of trouble common to them all, then
providing feedback the next day in class through direct
instruction, using examples and details from their papers.
In my English classes, for example, I will skim through

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
a set of papers to evaluate how effectively the writing
is organized, then copy a few examples and use those
both to set the standard and guide my instruction the
following day, giving students specific techniques they
can use to improve their own papers.
Designing discussion questions that reveal to both
teacher and students the current level of understanding.
Using evidence, such as individual evaluations or
group work, or a performance video to show them those
areas that are strong and weak, making time to meet
and discuss with them ways to improve in those areas.
In a public speaking class, for example, a teacher might
videotape individual performances, then meet with
students to deconstruct their performances. Based on these
conferences, students can make refinements and receive
additional feedback on subsequent performances.

Tech Note! Use programs such as PowerPoint to

create quick quiz questions to project during a
lesson or discussion. Students can indicate their answers
by raising their hands or indicating the correct answer
(a, b, c, d) to each practice multiple-choice question.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
4. Use the Right Tools
and Technology to
Enhance Instruction
Students in my colleague’s class resisted the research paper she
assigned them, but when she created an anonymous MySpace
account—one with a fake name, no identifying personal
information, no school affiliation—three sophomores found her
within 24 hours and wrote to invite her to be on their “Friend
list.” Kids typically run when we say, “Write!” but routinely write
on their cell phones and computers with vim, vigor, and a wide
variety of colorful language. They often turn in work that lacks
attention to detail and organization but will spend entire weekends
sorting and organizing their photographs on MySpace. Many boys
who resent school assignments lose themselves in games like World
of Warcraft, where they invest hours, even days, learning a dizzying
array of strategies, “cheats,” and rules needed to win.
Arguing the merits of today’s video games, Stephen Johnson
(2005) writes:
 he great secret of today's video games that has been
lost in the moral panic over Grand Theft Auto is how
difficult the games have become. That difficulty is not
merely a question of hand-eye coordination; most of
today’s games force kids to learn complex rule systems,
master challenging new interfaces, follow dozens of
shifting variables in real time and prioritize between
multiple objectives.
Instruction that works •

In short, precisely the sorts of skills that they’re going to need

in the digital workplace of tomorrow.
In the classroom, you have an increasingly wide range of
tools, certainly more than the filmstrip and chalkboard of my
youth. In this chapter we look at what tools you have and how
you can use them to improve your instruction.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Guiding Principles
1. U
 se an array of tools and technologies to enhance
your teaching.
2. C
 hoose the tools or technology most appropriate to the
instructional situation.
 ake the most effective use of tools and technology
3. M
in the classroom that you can.
4. C
 hallenge students to think critically and creatively
using tools and technology.
5. P
 rovide an appropriate environment for using such
tools and technology.

Use an array of tools and technologies

to enhance your teaching.
Something is a tool if you use it to accomplish a specific purpose;
thus it is not entirely right to suggest that tools and technology
are distinct, for the truth is that we use technological solutions
as tools to help us complete a
wide range of tasks. Tools come
in all forms and serve many
different functions, depending
on the context in which
they are used. We use tools
to present, analyze, capture,
collect, organize, communicate,
investigate, create, collaborate,
learn, and remember. Use
the following list to find the
tools and technology that will
improve your instruction and
best facilitate students’ learning:
Jim Burke


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
To present
• LCD projector (for laptop • Interactive whiteboard
or DVD/VCR) • Podcast
• Presentation software • Whiteboard/Chalkboard
(e.g., PowerPoint) • Web site
• Overhead projector • Television monitor
• MP3 player (for audio) (with DVD/VCR)

To organize
• Index cards • Software (database or
• Sticky notes spreadsheet programs)
• File folders, labels • Color-coded materials,
• Graphic organizers markers, or pencils

To collect, measure, capture, or record

• Camera (video or digital) • Software (spreadsheet and
• Graphic organizers database programs)
• Recorder (audio, MP3, • Instruments (such as, lab
digital) instruments like probes)
• Handheld devices

To analyze
• Software (spreadsheet • Calculator (financial,
programs) scientific, graphic)
• Graphic organizers • Instruments (scientific)

To generate
• Poster paper • Software (brainstorming
• Sticky notes programs such as
• Whiteboard/chalkboard Inspiration and Visual
Instruction that works •

• Graphic organizers

To communicate, collaborate, or investigate

• Online information sites • WebQuests
• E-mail • Simulations
• Blogs and threaded


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Jim Burke
Choose the tools or technology most
appropriate to the instructional situation.
Even as I write this, I can see my father telling my ten-year-old
self not to use the wrench as a hammer—for the umpteenth time.
When it comes to instructional tools and technology, choosing
the right tool for the job is still of great importance. When I
was a kid, schools had nothing expensive to break. No one had
any interest in playing with a filmstrip projector. Now we have
machines in our rooms worth thousands of dollars (if we are
lucky) which, if broken, will probably take a long time to get
replaced. And because we have so little time to spare, we strive to
choose the most effective instructional tools. Too often, though,
we fall prey to the allure of using a computer to do in 20 minutes
what could be done in five on paper. Or we use the overhead for
work that should be done on the whiteboard, where it can be left
and reviewed later on. To help you decide which tool to use, ask
yourself these questions:
• What problem does this tool or technology solve?
• Can this task be completed just as easily with a paper and
pencil? I often have students create a “paper PowerPoint”
by drawing a slide and crunching the information down
to a header and three main bullet points, then present or
discuss it with a group or the class.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
• What features can you use (e.g., color, formatting,
spatial arrangement of information) that can improve
instruction and understanding? In English, for
example, when teaching writing, I often use different
colors when teaching aspects of writing or grammar.
• What skills and knowledge do students need in order
to be able to use this tool or technology? And, do you
have the necessary time to provide this instruction and
still have them use the tool for the primary task? In
math, for example, graphic calculators are increasingly
common, but require some training.
• What handouts or other complementary materials can
you provide students to help them further process and
understand what they are learning? A history teacher
might, for example, give students a graphic organizer as
a means of considering a subject from different sides.

Tech Note! It is easy, especially in schools with

resources, to assume that all kids have access to
computers and other tools you want them to use. Equity
and access are important guiding principles when using
technology. If you require students to participate in online
discussions, for example, be sure they have access through
school in case they do not at home.
Instruction that works •


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Finding Your Focus
Name ___________________________ Date ______ Period ______
Directions: List the general subject for your paper or inquiry.
Identify four aspects or different perspectives on the topic in the
four surrounding squares. Then pose three questions about each
of these aspects. Discuss your questions with your partner or
group and choose one to explore further.

______________________ ______________________

1. 1.

2. 2.

3. 3.

_______________ ________________

1. 1.

2. 2.

3. 3.

The focus of my inquiry will be:


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Make the most effective use of tools and
technology in the classroom that you can.
In the early years of computers, many teachers used computers
as electronic worksheets, having students sit before the screen
doing what they could have done easily, and for much less money,
on paper. No doubt this still goes on, but we have learned much
more about how to use technology to enhance instruction and
learning. For example, in their study of mathematics instruction
in the United States, Germany, and Japan, Stigler and Hiebert
(1999) examined teachers’ use of visual aids to help students learn
mathematics. They focused in detail on the difference between
using the board vs. the overhead, contrasting the American
teachers’ commitment to the overhead to the Japanese teachers’
structured use of the board:
Whether they use overhead projectors or chalkboards,
[American teachers] use these visual aids to keep students’
attention directed toward the information of the moment. . . .
Many preservice teacher-training programs offer advice on
using overhead projectors in just this way. . . [being] told to
cover up all the items on the transparency except the one
being presented, then to move the cover down to the next
item, and so on. . . . Japanese teachers use visual aids for a
very different purpose: to provide a record of the problems
and solution methods and principles that are discussed
during the lesson. The first item of information in the lesson
is placed at the far left of the chalkboard; the next item,
whether presented by student or the teacher, is written next
to it; and so on. The record builds, left to right, as the lesson
proceeds. Many Japanese teachers finish the lesson with a
full chalkboard, showing a complete record of the lesson.

Perhaps the central lesson implied by this example is that

Instruction that works •

in order to learn, students need to be able to revisit information

during the learning process, that learning broken into episodes
or fragments fails to deepen our understanding or remain in
our memory. Consider these suggestions to make sure you use
technology and tools in ways that make a lasting instructional
Provide feedback and follow through on the work
students do when using tools and technology, treating 51

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
the WebQuest or graphic organizer as the beginning,
not the end of the assignment. I typically have them
synthesize the contents of the organizer into a paragraph,
which creates a useful opportunity for further writing
Give students clear instructions in the proper use of
the tools and technology. This may mean copying the
tool to a transparency or presenting on an LCD to model
how to use it.
Plan ahead when using technology to make sure everything
is ready to maximize instructional time. I always go by the
computer lab ahead of time to make sure the printer is
working and stocked with paper, for example.
Avoid using features (e.g., sound, graphics, fonts,
animation) that distract from the material you want
students to learn.
Choose the tool or technology that yields the greatest
learning result while also developing additional
knowledge and skills. For example, having students
use spreadsheet software also teaches them to analyze
and organize data, as well as use computers and new
software programs.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Challenge students to think critically and
creatively using tools and technology.
Regardless of whether we choose paper or Web pages, screens or
boards, the question is always: How does this specific tool allow
you to add capacity and complexity to your instruction that not
only helps students understand but extends their understanding?
One year, for example, I wanted to bring a wider range of texts
into my class, freeing us from the limits of black-and-white on
paper. Looking to the Internet for inspiration, I came up with
the idea of a “digital textbook” (Burke 2001) I called The Weekly
Reader. (
Thanks to the computer, I could create a table of contents for
this digital textbook, which included video, images, audio, color,
simulations, and more, all
of which my students could
easily access, experience,
and write about in a short
weekly paper. My goal,
aside from giving them
the chance to explore the
bigger textual world, was to
extend their work by asking
them to read new and more
demanding texts; thus, they
took a traditional literacy
(reading) to the next level and, in the context, learned new ways
to think about and make sense of what they read, hear, and see.
To incorporate such complexity and critical thinking into your
curriculum, you can:
Ask yourself what more you can add to each
Instruction that works •

assignment that would increase the challenge and

complexity in useful, educational ways. For example, a
teacher could have students take digital photographs
of their lab results, then annotate the images before
presenting them to the class using an LCD projector.
Use technology to show the same subject from
multiple perspectives. For example, an English teacher
could show a sample paragraph on an LCD projector in

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
regular black letters, formatted as a traditional paragraph,
followed by the same paragraph in different colors, to
show, for example, the supporting details. Finally, that
same paragraph might be parsed into lines to show more
visually how the writing is organized.
Make room for students to invent and explore
possibilities you may not anticipate or know about.
Once a student asked me if his group could transform
a group project they were doing into a “paper Web site”
to take advantage of the different design elements
inherent in Web sites.
Ask kids to reflect on the tools or technology they
are using, and results they are getting. For example,
while students are preparing a PowerPoint presentation,
you can ask them to stop and examine the organizational
pattern and content of the slides and how that will
achieve the intended effect.
Discuss the different ways students used the tools,
the questions they asked, and the strategies they used to
get their results; also, compare these results with others,
making the process part of the instruction so that others
see how else they might obtain similar or even better
results in the future. In a science class, for example,
students can discuss how they used various instruments
and applications to yield, gather, and manage data.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Provide an appropriate environment
for using such tools and technology.
All the tools and technology in the world will make no
instructional difference if you cannot provide the necessary
conditions to use them and learn. Many teachers take students
into the computer lab, prepared to use an entire period for online
research or other work on the computers, only to find different
operating systems on machines, no paper in the printer, an empty
toner cartridge, missing software needed for the assignment,
no mouse on three machines and no working keyboard on two
others. Or the Internet is down that day. Follow these simple but
useful suggestions to make sure you have a successful class when
using tools or technology:
• Prepare ahead of time to be sure you have all necessary
materials, equipment, or resources and that they are
appropriate, working, and available.
• Estimate how much time students will need in the lab,
library, or shop; also, figure out how much time the
whole assignment will take and evaluate the benefit of
that expenditure of time.
• Consider what support materials (e.g., handouts) or
additional tools (e.g., graphic organizers) would help
students succeed on this assignment. I often write out
specific instructions, sometimes providing a screen
shot of what students should see when, for example,
they first participate in an online threaded discussion.
• Design assignments that make maximum use of
students’ attention and energy, and the school’s
resources. For example, students can complete a
Instruction that works •

WebQuest in pairs, or do a lab in teams.

• Have examples of similar work on hand for students to
refer to as they work, so they know what a successful
performance of the task looks like. On my Weekly Reader
Web site, for example, I post sample papers and the rubric
I use to evaluate the writing on that assignment.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Classroom Culture
5. Support All Students
to Ensure Success
If you begin by assuming your students can meet your high expecta-
tions, it transforms the relationship and your role, making you a
guide, a mentor charged with helping your apprentices learn what
you are there to teach. Still, no one method will reach all the kids
in your class, which is why the new “three Rs”—rigor, relevance,
and relationships—are so important. That first R, rigor, sets the bar
you will help them clear. The other two Rs represent the support
you will provide, support based on your commitment to meaning-
ful learning (relevance) and to the students themselves (relation-
ships). The following guiding principles offer a useful framework to
consider before, during, and after you teach a lesson or unit.

Guiding Principles
1. Identify and teach to students’ strengths.
2. P
 rovide different types of support throughout the
learning experience.
3. Differentiate instruction whenever possible.
4. Use different methods, strategies, and configurations.
5. D
 emonstrate and restate your faith in your students
throughout the instructional process.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Identify and teach to students’
Whether you describe them as “affinities”
(Moran, Kornhaber, Gardner 2006),
“minds” (Levine 2006), “intelligences”
(Gardner 2006), or “cognitive strengths”
(Sternberg 2006), each student comes
into your class knowing many things.
The catch, of course, is that those things
may not fall into the area you teach. In
his research into cognitive strengths,
Sternberg found that there were three
primary types: analytical, creative, and
practical. In a number of different studies,
he found that students working within
the domain of their primary strength not
only learned more, but were more engaged and did measurably
better on multiple-choice tests that stressed memory over deep
understanding. Summing up his findings, Sternberg wrote: “When
we teach and assess in ways that respect different strengths,
students learn and perform better.” Here are some suggestions to
help you teach to your students’ strengths:
Identify your students’ strengths early through a
questionnaire, informal assessment, or any other means
that will reveal this information. Return to these
periodically, asking students to reflect on these strengths,
how they help, and how they have been using these
strengths to learn and remember. During the first week, I
deliberately provide opportunities to show what they can
do as readers, writers, speakers, workers, and test takers.
Instruction that works •

Monitor student work—on paper, in discussions,

during labs—to find strengths; point these out to
students, referring to them and drawing on them in the
future. During a lab, a science teacher may notice a
student’s consistent effort to focus and guide the group,
using certain helpful questions.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Let your students use their strengths in order to
learn or show what they know. Students with strong
verbal abilities might be asked to write a summary of
a certain mathematical principle, or allow students
with artistic abilities to first draw what they will later
explain in writing.

Jim Burke
Organize students into groups based on strengths,
inviting them to learn and demonstrate their mastery
of the material by means of their strength. Sternberg
organized students by cognitive strengths—analytical,
creative, and practical—and had them read the same
psychology textbook, but allowed each group to work
with it according to their specific strengths. Students
excelled, with each group demonstrating equivalent
gains on the traditional, multiple-choice tests.
Encourage and allow students to use what they know
in another area—their culture, sports, or other academic
areas—to learn what you are teaching them in your
discipline. In English, for example, I have had great
success when asking students to visually represent the
action in a Shakespeare play by allowing football players
to use the visual language of football plays to describe
what the characters in the story are doing. By using a
visual language, they understand how to explain what
they thought they could not. I help them get back in
the academic game.

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Provide different types of support
throughout the learning experience.
Support comes in many different forms; here are some useful
Physical—Students with physical limitations may need
help in doing certain tasks that require coordination,
strength, or stamina they do not have.
Material—Keep extra supplies on hand, and be mindful,
when assigning work that requires equipment (e.g., a
computer, graphic calculator), that not all students have
access at home.
Cognitive—Many thought processes, such as those
involved in reading and writing, require specialized
thinking that is not intuitive to most students;
providing cognitive sentence starters helps them learn
the necessary language structures and allows them to
complete the task.
Emotional—Students have many pressures they are
coping with; monitor students’ emotional condition and
show compassion by listening, asking, encouraging, and
praising, to help them through difficult times.
Procedural—Write directions on the board and
handouts in clear, easy-to-follow steps; go over these,
providing examples, if necessary. In a lab or shop, take
time to demonstrate any new procedures or how to use
new instruments and tools.
Cultural—Evaluate students’ knowledge of a given
subject necessary to complete another task (e.g., biblical
literacy necessary to understand a literary work); based
on evaluation, provide the necessary background
classroom culture •

knowledge on the event, person, era, or idea.

Social—Teach students the skills needed to work with
others, especially if they have no prior experience of
working with others in such a way. This includes
teaching students the language needed to participate
in class discussions.

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Academic—Students need guidance in taking notes,
taking tests, reading and writing about academic
subjects, and using academic conventions. Provide lists
of sentence starters or specialized terms they should use,
and explain when, how, and why to use them, offering
examples when appropriate.
Linguistic—ELLs need help understanding the language;
provide this support by assigning your ELLs a native speaker
nearby to explain; also, check to make sure they understand
as the learning experience unfolds.
Background Knowledge—While related to the cultural
literacy mentioned on the previous page, background
knowledge also refers to knowledge of ideas, processes,
events, and other subjects that prepare students to complete
some assigned task.

Keep in Mind Echevarria and Graves (2003) identify

the following key considerations for working with
ELLs with language and learning difficulties: “provide
abundant guided practice for acquisition of concepts; adjust
the pace of instruction according to students’ needs; allow
extra time to complete assignments; praise students’
efforts and use positive reinforcement; partner students
with others sensitive to their learning needs; provide
alternative activities when a task may draw undue attention
to students’ disabilities. . . ; plan and use appropriate
behavior management techniques; employ learning
strategies known to be effective with students
with disabilities.”

Differentiate instruction whenever possible.

Differentiating instruction does not mean creating 35 separate
lesson plans for the 35 students in your class. Tomlinson (1999)
describes it as “a teacher’s response to [a] learner’s needs guided
by general principles of differentiation such as respectful tasks,
flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment.”
Nor does it mean lowering your expectations to ensure some

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
diminished, empty form of success. Instead, differentiation aims
to address the needs of students at all levels, including your
highest-achieving students, who need to be challenged in ways
the others are not necessarily prepared for yet. Tomlinson argues
that teachers can differentiate three areas of the curriculum—
content, process, and product—according to each student’s
readiness, interests, and learning profile. As discussed before,
such a profile might be based on Gardner’s “intelligences,”
Sternberg’s “cognitive strengths,” or Levine’s “minds.” The
following suggestions offer a range of instructional solutions for
differentiating instruction in your class:
Use a group configuration, such as a lab team, which
allows each student to assume a different role, some of
which make greater cognitive
demands than others. Character frantic
Provide a range of problems, Words gregarious
texts, or projects to choose intelligent
from, each one representing irritable
different levels of difficulty, but loquacious
all of them based on the same manipulative
subject or text you are trying to naïve
teach. In a social studies class, nervous
the teacher might allow students outgoing
to choose from an article in picky
Time, a local paper, or a primary scrupulous
source document on World War sincere
II, each one more difficult than testy
the other. unpredictable
Assign support materials, easygoing
such as word lists or graphic envious
organizers, which students can
use at different levels of ability.
classroom culture •

In English classes, for example, discussing and analyzing

characters can be difficult, so provide students with a list
of character words to choose from. (See examples above.)
Give students a variety of topics to choose from when
writing, some of which make greater demands and allow
for a greater range of responses than others. In a health

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
class, for example, writing topics could range from
summarizing, to comparing and contrasting, to analyzing
the cause and effect of different drugs.
Prepare additional prompts, questions, or problems for
students who finish early or need additional support or
challenge. The teacher could post these on a side board,
keep on the class computer, or store on index cards.
Allow alternative routes for students with special
needs, such as audiobooks, to complete a reading
assignment in your class.

Keep in Mind As students move into the higher

grades, the demands of school typically play to
girls’ strengths (verbal and linguistic), providing fewer
opportunities for boys to use their dominant abilities
(spatial) in hands-on ways. Look for ways to let students
choose the method that plays to their individual strengths,
and ask yourself if this content, process, or product creates
an obstacle to the success of any members of your class.

Use different methods, strategies,

and configurations.
Mel Levine (2006) identifies eight distinct neurodevelopmental
constructs that represent individual students’ strengths: attention,
temporal-sequential ordering, spatial ordering, memory, language,
neuromotor functions, social cognition, and higher-order
cognition. Some tasks or assignments demand that students use
more of these functions than others, a fact that has significant
implications when you are making instructional choices. Levine
says of writing that it “is the largest orchestra a kid’s mind has
to conduct,” which explains why some students have so much
difficulty with all or certain aspects of the writing process. The
following list offers suggestions for how to meet students’ needs
using a variety of approaches and configurations:


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Provide regular opportunities to collaborate, in
various group configurations, on assignments to allow
students to help and learn from each other. Nystrand
(2006) found no other instructional approach showed
greater gains in comprehension, engagement, and
memory than structured, intentional use of discussion
in small- to medium-sized groups.
Employ a range of instructional modes: reading,
writing, speaking, visually representing, and physically
enacting or constructing. In a history class, for example,
students might read primary source documents and
articles from South Africa, which they then adapt
into speeches, which they rehearse and present—in
character—as part of a forum on, for example, apartheid.
Allow students to choose which strategies they will
use on certain tasks once they have learned to use them
independently through direct and
guided instruction and subsequent
practice. Science teachers can
teach students to take a variety of
note-taking formats, but eventually
students should be free to choose
the one that best aligns with their
learning style.
Give students a variety of ways to
demonstrate their understanding,
Jim Burke

whenever appropriate. While you

should not accept a video in lieu
of a research paper when you are focusing on writing
instruction, the documentary is a valid alternative in
many other situations. Though you want them to read
challenging literature, consider when it is acceptable
classroom culture •

to allow students to listen to audiobooks instead as an

alternative, and how you might have them respond to
or take notes on such a reading experience.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Demonstrate and restate your faith in your
students throughout the instructional process.
Throughout this process of learning, students are figuring
out whether to see themselves as someone who can do what
school—and the world—asks them to do, or someone who
cannot. Students who work with a teacher whose words and
actions, whose tone and attitude, convey confidence and faith,
will be more likely to weather the storms of doubt inherent in the
process of learning. You can convey this sense of confidence and
assurance to students by doing the following:
Use positive, optimistic language when speaking to
both the class and individual students, assuring them
that you would never ask them to do something you
were not sure they could do—or learn to do. When
introducing a writing assignment, for example, I typically
explain how important this is for their success in school
and life, then, whenever possible, sit down and write
with them.
Show faith in students by giving them room to choose
or asking them what they think about a topic, text, or
problem. When possible and appropriate, I will give
students the option of coming up with their own alternate
topic, though they must
first clear it with me
to make sure it meets
the same instructional


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Maintain high expectations, but convey your
commitment to helping them satisfy those expectations
through your attitude, language, and actions. I
consistently remind them that I have high expectations,
but am willing to meet with them before or after school
to help them meet these expectations. I also pepper my
language in class with remarks such as, “Yes, this is a
demanding assignment, the most demanding so far, but
I know you are ready for it and I’m willing to help you
every step of the way.”
Communicate your enthusiasm for their ability and
progress through comments—spoken and written—in
and outside of class, to the students themselves, as well as
to their parents and the class in general, finding specific
but genuine qualities. Some schools have online student
systems like Power School or School Loop, which is what
I use to send out praise notes or notes of encouragement,
which take only seconds to write.

Keep in Mind Leave your personal biases and

prejudices—about race, ethnicity, gender, certain
groups, or issues—at home. Enter the classroom with the
belief that all students can learn and can succeed if you provide
them with the necessary emotional and cognitive support.
classroom culture •


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
6. Maintain a Safe,
Productive Learning
Creating a safe, supportive environment does not mean protecting
students from any possibility of failure; nor does it mean lowering
your expectations until they are doing the academic equivalent
of playing tennis without a net. Rather, it means establishing a
culture of purpose and rigor seasoned with laughter and learning,
a culture of high expectations served on a bed of genuine support
designed to help kids meet those high expectations, a culture that
celebrates that success once it is achieved. When expectations are
high, however, pressure can get to the best of us; so to increase
the likelihood of achieving such bold objectives, you must create
the necessary conditions and sense of emotional security that your
students require in order to accomplish what they did not think
they could.

Guiding Principles
1. E
 stablish and maintain high expectations for quality of
work and behavior.
2. C
 reate clear policies regarding behavior and enforce
them consistently.
3. Cultivate a safe, respectful environment at all times.
4. Consider students’ developmental needs.
5. C
 elebrate students’ success in and out of the


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Establish and maintain high expectations
for quality of work and behavior.
Studies consistently find that high expectations are an essential
ingredient to success in school and life. Such demands create a
sense of urgency, a feeling of importance to the work at hand;
and, if spelled out in the syllabus in a tone that implies faith,
students will respond in kind, placing their faith in you to help
them meet your challenging standards. It is one thing to say,
“Jump over that ten-foot bar!” and quite another to teach them
how to do it. And kids today are under so much pressure in all
areas of their lives that they need all the help you can offer. A
recent survey by found that kids between the ages
of 9 and 13 worried most about grades, appearance, problems
at home, being liked/fitting in at school, and being out of
shape or overweight. Many of these concerns clearly relate to
students’ self-esteem, and nothing improves self-esteem more than
real, measurable success. Thus, from the day students walk into
your class, they should find a closely linked and clearly conveyed
combination of high expectations and the support needed to
achieve that end. To create such a culture of high expectations,
try the following:
Connect all instruction to the world at large. Explain
the real-world importance of what you teach. In my
English classes, for example, I consistently emphasize
stories like the one about the local fire department that
narrowed the applicant pool by first giving a writing test
(which they asked our English department to help them
Provide examples of what a successful performance
looks like by displaying these samples on the overhead,
bulletin board, or handouts so students get a sense of the
classroom culture •

level of your expectations. Rubrics can further clarify

your expectations by defining what they must do to
achieve the desired result. A social studies teacher, for
example, could put on the overhead and analyze aloud
a sample essay from a previous exam to better prepare
students for the next one.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Spend more time on assignments, helping students
dig deeper for the big ideas instead of equating high
expectations with work piled high. Overwhelming
students with busywork frustrates and alienates them,
creating hurdles that only the most ambitious are willing
to jump. Math teachers at my school, for example, found
that students were more likely to do their homework and
do it well if they had five instead of ten problems to do.
Use a grading system that allows students to take
risks and learn without fear of punishment. In the
ABC-I grading system, anything below a C is considered
incomplete and must be revised or redone. This shows
that some need more time and guidance, but that
everyone can meet your standards if they make the effort
and get the necessary help.
Validate students’ struggles. It’s important to
acknowledge that it is hard. In my class, for example,
I often acknowledge what I found difficult about a
particular text and then talk about how I solved the
problems I encountered, discussing the specific strategies
I employed.

Create clear policies regarding behavior and

enforce them consistently.
A safe environment is predictable, unlike the environment that
many of your students go home to each day. This does not mean
that you should do the same thing every day in the same way, like
some “edubot”; rather, it means that you are consistent in how
you structure the class, and how you handle situations and treat
students. Such a classroom culture is the consequence of policies
(some of which may be developed with students) designed to hold
students accountable for their behavior, while also being flexible
and responsive to individual students’ needs. These policies, spelled
out at the beginning and revisited throughout the school year, exist
to help your students learn and succeed. In the absence of such
policies, students withdraw in order to protect themselves. Follow
these suggestions when creating and enforcing policies in your class:

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Define all policies about behavior and student work
in clear, student-friendly language. See, for example, my
sample User’s Guide to Mr. Burke’s classroom, on the
next page.
Communicate these policies in writing (syllabus,
handout, bulletin board), speech (refer to, reiterate, and
clarify them), and through your own actions, which
should always demonstrate the principles that govern
your class.
Enforce policies completely (e.g., don’t apply only
those parts you want to) and consistently (e.g., to all
students in all situations); to do less would undermine
your own credibility and the effectiveness of the policies
Clarify and reinforce how these policies relate to
students’ success. In a first period class, for example,
emphasize that you do important work at the bell for
those opening minutes and that late = missed learning =
lower grade in your class.
Apply these policies in a sensitive way, avoiding
whenever possible any gesture that would embarrass
or otherwise humiliate a student. Instead of saying
sarcastically to a frequently late student, “Well, Mr.
Murphy, so glad you could join us,” talk to the student in
private after class, stressing the importance of being there
on time and clarifying your policies.
classroom culture •


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Mr. Burke’s Class: A User’s Guide
If… Then…
You need to go the restroom, Please ask for a pass, which
is required at all times in the

You ask to go the restroom I will recommend you go

regularly, before class and ask you to
wait until class is over.

You have an electronic device I will assign detention as

out where I can see it, required by the school
electronic devices policy.

You bring food or drink into I will ask you to either store it
the classroom, or dispose of it.

You have special needs of Please let me know ASAP so I

any kind (difficulty seeing can accommodate you if at all
the board or reading my possible.
handwriting, are disturbed
by noise, etc.),

You wish to speak to me Please write a note and attach

about a grade you received, it to the assignment stating
your concern with the grade.

You wish to meet with me Sign up on the calendar and

to discuss an assignment, let me know so that I can be
a problem or anything else, there and ready to help.

You do not have a computer You are welcome to use mine

at home, before school and during
lunch period.

If you cannot afford or find Let me know so that I can

any resources I encourage or help you.
require you to buy,


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Cultivate a safe, respectful environment
at all times.
Nothing is more difficult—or more important—in a learning
environment than for a student to say, “I don’t understand,” or
“Could you explain that again?” Such phrases, which roll off the
tongue of confident, experienced learners with ease, even pride,
are prized moments in the life of the emerging student, the one
who asks now because he really wants to know—and thinks
he can understand if told again, in slightly different language.
However, such moments are full of danger, vulnerability: If
someone were to laugh or otherwise embarrass the student at
such a moment, that student might never raise her hand again.
I once had a student who did not speak in class until the second
semester. In response to a simple yes/no question, Simone raised
her hand slowly—the whole class was looking at her, thinking but
not saying “Wow, Simone has her hand up!”—and said only, “No.”
classroom culture •

Because we had worked so hard to create a climate of safety in the

classroom, and because we respected what a huge step it was for
Simone to do this, we all knew that we must not say anything or
we would frighten her away from ever speaking again.
Such respect is all the more important these days given the
cultural, political, and personal perspectives and experiences stu-
dents—and teachers—bring into the classroom, many of which can

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
be incendiary given the nature of
those tensions. Because of these
issues and the problems that can
arise, your classroom needs to be
a shelter from that storm, a place
where everyone comes in and feels
safe to speak and be listened to by
their peers. Without that security,
that respect, that trust, real learn-
ing is impossible. Here are some
ways to cultivate such an atmo-
sphere of security and respect:
Model the use of respectful language at all times when
speaking to or about students—or your colleagues—in
and outside of class. For example, if your colleagues in
another department teach writing in a way you don’t
agree with, you should say only, “I realize that other
teachers have different expectations appropriate to their
subject area, but in this class we write this way for the
following reasons….”
Establish your policies and values immediately related
to respect in the class, discussing why you value these
and how such traits will serve students in the increasingly
global and diverse world. In most classes, for example, it
is appropriate to collaborate, which, we should emphasize,
is essential to their success in the adult world, where
collaboration with different people, who may even be
in a different country (online collaboration) is common
practice. In my class, I typically say, “It’s essential that you
learn to work with others as this is a necessary skill for
success in today’s workplace, where the person you work
with might live in India and work with you via a video
screen on your computer.”
Create the conditions for taking risks by giving
students language they can use if they do not know
how to discuss a subject or by framing the activity
with phrases such as, “Now, this is difficult for many
people, so when we talk about it, I want us to respect
72 each person when they take their turn. That means no

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
laughing if someone were to make a mistake or otherwise
embarrassing them.”
Speak with students privately about how they handled
a situation or used language, making them aware, but not
uncomfortable. If appropriate, discuss with them some other
ways they could have said or handled something that may
have caused some offense or tension. I will typically ask a
student to stay after or come back at recess so I can point
out what was said or done, and asking them “Can you think
of another way to handle that situation or respond to that
person that would show more respect?” I might then suggest
a few others.
Evaluate your own materials for language or content that
might upset or offend students; this also means evaluating
your curriculum for the treatment or absence of women,
people of color, and other groups. If such content is an
inevitable part of the curriculum, consider how best to
address it and make it part of the curriculum. When I
started teaching a senior class, for example, the books
were all written by white authors, only one of whom was a
woman. Little by little, for we never have enough money
to do things in bold moves, I introduced new authors and
different, more inclusive topics.

Consider students’ developmental needs.

Students do not all develop in the same way on the same
schedule; nor is there one generic idea we can call “development.”
Darling-Hammond and Baratz-Snowden (2005) suggest that
crucial areas of development include social, cognitive, physical,
emotional, and linguistic, all of which play an essential role in
academic and adult success. In a chapter titled “Preparing the
classroom culture •

Brain for School,” Eric Jensen (2005) distinguishes between

the different grades, characterizing the brain of the 5- to 12-
year-old as one of “wonder, ready to take on new challenges
including reading, writing, arithmetic, and the world of reason.”
Summarizing others’ findings, Jensen indicates two periods of
major brain development during this first phase: around 6 or 7,
and again around 11–12. During these stages, the brain shows new

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
cognitive capacities for increasingly abstract thinking as well as a
greater understanding of the world beyond the child. Toward the
end of this first stage—that is, as students enter middle school—
they show an increased awareness of social networks and make
often baffling decisions about who they spend their time with,
how they act, and what they eat, all of which can interfere with
their performance in school. The high school years, during which
hormones are in full swing, bring additional physical changes that
further complicate the emotional and cognitive changes already
underway. All this development suggests a brain rich in potential
but characterized by inefficiency. As if the developmental picture
were not complex enough, Jensen (2005) says, “Although most
brains become physically mature between ages 18 and 30, it takes
boys until about age 24 to catch up to girls’ brain development.”
Darling-Hammond and Baratz-Snowden (2005) identify four areas
teachers should understand if they are to be effective:
• The constructive nature of knowing—the fact that we
all actively attempt to interpret our world based on our
existing skills, knowledge, and developmental levels. This
means that teachers need to understand what students
already know and believe, and be able to build bridges
between students’ prior experience and new knowledge.
This includes anticipating student misunderstandings in
particular areas so that they can be addressed.
• Cognitive processing—how people respond to, perceive,
and process information, retain it in short- and long-term
memory, and retrieve it. This includes the importance
of organizing information so that it can be connected to
other ideas, incorporated into a schema for learning new
information, and retrieved when needed.
• Metacognition—how people learn to monitor and
regulate their own learning and thinking. This
includes knowing how to teach students to think
about what they understand, what they need to
learn, and what strategies they can use to acquire the
information they need.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
• Motivation—what encourages students to become
and remain engaged with their learning. This includes
knowing what kinds of tasks, supports, and feedback
encourage students to put forth effort and strive to
You have so much to teach, so little time in which to teach
it; yet if you don’t consider how the minds of your students work,
if you ignore those other aspects of their development, they
may leave class without having learned what you wanted them
to know. Or, they may learn it but not remember it unless you
help them connect what they learn today to all the other nodes
in the growing branches of knowledge in their brain. Here are
some general suggestions for teaching in the midst of students’
developmental evolution:
Provide concise directions broken down into steps,
going through each one individually; also, do not muddle
your message by inserting digressions, sarcastic remarks,
or critical comments that would cause emotional
classroom culture •

reactions. On writing assignments, for example, whether

the directions appear on the board or a handout, list the
steps sequentially.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Teach like a doctor, not a judge: Continually assess and
monitor what students need, how they are responding;
then make instructional choices based on your diagnosis
instead of criticizing them and thereby eliciting
counterproductive emotional responses and undermining
their confidence and motivation. Writing is tough for
most students, and you’ll always find errors. Consider the
difference between saying, “I was appalled by the errors
in your writing. Terrible! I wondered if you had any idea
how to write at all!” and “I noticed on the papers certain
patterns of error which we will look at in the coming
weeks. Today I thought we would look at just a few
examples and discuss how you can avoid these problems
in the future.”
Make room for mistakes during the learning process.
The absence of punishment gives students the room
they need to experiment, to figure out how they can best
solve the problem or understand the material. When
teaching writing, for example, I often have students write
several different versions of an introduction, encouraging
them to take risks and stressing that they will not be
punished with lower grades for doing so.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Create outlets for physical energy. They already
have it and if not used, it will interfere with learning.
In grades 4 to 9, for example, allow students to act out
texts and historical events or construct models by way of
understanding concepts or solving problems.
Select tasks with students’ developmental needs
in mind, providing contexts to explore those aspects
of their own development or issues in their own lives
through young adult literature or online investigations.
In health classes, for instance, subjects like brain
development, sleep, and relationships offer meaningful
subjects that students are motivated to understand.

Celebrate students’ success in

and outside of the classroom.
For all the talk about standards and high expectations, about
holding kids accountable and pushing them to prepare for the
demands of the world to come, there is little talk about the
importance of joy and love of learning. The philosopher Simone
Weil, reflecting on the purpose of education, wrote, “The joy of
learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.”
And Albert Einstein, who made many poignant remarks about
education, argued that, “love is a much better teacher than duty.”
When we think about celebration, we must also think about
whether what we celebrate has any real meaning and value to the
people involved. Is getting a high score on a standardized test an
event of genuine value to students? If it is a test like the ACT or
SAT, the success is meaningful because it has real results, and they
invested the time to do well on it. State tests, on the other hand,
are not a point of pride to a student as is the piece of art he stayed
up late into the night to get just right, or the science project the
classroom culture •

student and her other team members created and presented to the
class, which showed genuine admiration for the team’s work. Not
all celebration need come from the whole class or even be public,
however; it can be private, taking place on the margin of the
page, after class is over, or with the slightest nod of the head to
which you might add a secret thumbs-up and a smile. The point
is that when work is worth doing, it is worth celebrating, not just

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
the predictable success of your best students, but the moments of
wonder, which are sometimes as subtle as an idea or as humble as
a single sentence written with grace and insight. Here, then, are
some ways you can celebrate students’ success in your class, and
do so in ways that make a difference:
Be specific when celebrating individual, group, or
class success, so that students know what they did that
was so special; generic praise such as “Good job!” while
welcome words to a few, is empty and offers nothing
they might use to guide them on future performances.
Instead, try saying something like, “I really appreciate
the way your question opened up new connections in the
discussion today.”
Communicate praise to students, their classmates,
in sincere, authentic ways via spoken and written
comments (through notes, comments in margin, e-mail).
You can also honor a student’s success by referring to his
or her work in class discussions, even if that student is
not in class. Trust me, word will get back to them, and
mean all the more. Also, recognizing success outside of
the class—on the field, the stage, around the campus, in
the community—will translate into good will and greater
success inside the classroom. I often send an e-mail or write
a quick note on an index card; also, I am glad to stop and
have a personal conversation in the hall with a student I
have not seen for a while or about whom I am worried.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Display, publish, or feature student work in class,
around school, online (e.g., class or school Web site), or
through a student anthology.
Acknowledge students as the source of good ideas
you or others bring up in class. For example, you might
say, “Ernesto raised some questions when discussing
this idea with his group this morning and I thought we
should take a look at what he said.” Such efforts show
that you listen to and remember what your students say
and honor their intelligence and effort.
Ask students to explain their process to the class—the
way in which they arrived at their elegant result; or, if
you teach language arts, invite students who distinguished
themselves to read their poem or story aloud to the class.

Keep in Mind Everyone desires praise and

celebration, some recognition of his or her effort and
ideas. But not everyone welcomes it in front of an audience.
In some cases, it can bring on harsh treatment from others
in the class who feel that the student made them look bad. In
other situations, the student may want to learn and succeed
but cannot afford to show it to his friends, and so any public
recognition threatens to “blow his cover” by showing that
he actually cares. The more you know your students, the
better you know what they need. For some, I pass a note or
make a comment after class; for others, I put their work on
the overhead as an excellent example to others but leave
the name off, perhaps even typing it up to make it more
anonymous; but the person who did it knows it is theirs and
will appreciate the recognition—and the consideration you
showed him or her.
classroom culture •


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Curriculum Basics
7. Teach Skills and
Knowledge in Context
Skills and knowledge offer solutions to problems we face; to the
extent that these skills and this knowledge are useful to us, we are
motivated to acquire them. Through a simulation called the China
Game, students at my school were able to experience the daily
changes of fortune that affected people during the rise of Communism
in China. A range of experiences obviously requires more than one
instructional approach: some skills are best taught through direct,
explicit instruction; other ideas and skills are better taught through
simulation and more active learning methods; and some benefit from
the integration of the two for deeper, more robust learning to take
place. Each type of instruction, however, has its place.
Regardless of the type of instruction, you know that learning
exists along a continuum of mastery. Thus, you cannot hope for
students to remain anything but novices if instruction is always
decontextualized. My 15-year-old son clearly wants to learn to dribble
the basketball better, but he realizes he won’t become a better player
if he doesn’t put the skills to use in a real game. To develop the
fluency and mastery your students require, they must work in ways
that develop their ability to solve increasingly difficult problems that
may take more time, and thus more patience and analytical thinking.
Such thinking can only be achieved through application, which
develops the independence students need if they are to succeed in
class, on tests, and out there in the world.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Guiding Principles
1. D
 esign authentic learning experiences that integrate
skills and knowledge.
2. U
 se different types of instruction to teach skills and
3. Develop fluency through variation within lessons.
4. O
 rganize instruction into patterns for maximum
5. Teach a range of skills and types of knowledge.

Design authentic learning experiences

that integrate skills and knowledge.
Robert Sternberg (1999) argues that “children develop expertise
in the skills needed for academic tests as well as expertise in skills
needed in real-life experiences” through “purposeful, engaging
experiences [which] add to the acquisition process.”
The following suggestions will help you integrate skills and
knowledge when designing learning experiences:
Embed skills and knowledge instruction within the
context of an authentic, purposeful assignment such as
writing a play, letter, speech, or research paper; solving
a problem in science, health, or economics; designing or
constructing a project in shop, science, or mathematics.
Have students identify and solve problems they
encounter in the context of their work by teaching
them the steps in the problem-solving process: identify
a problem by asking, “What’s the problem here?”; define
curriculum basics •

the problem by asking, “What are the components of the

problem?”; formulate a problem-solving strategy by asking,
“How can this problem be solved?”; allocate resources,
asking “What is needed to solve this problem?”; and
evaluate the solution, asking “Was the problem solved
successfully?” (Astleitner 2005).

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Jim Burke
Organize the learning experience around essential
questions that drive inquiry and create a context for
teaching new skills and knowledge. In my senior English
class, for example, students spend much of the first
semester reading a variety of texts as they explore the
questions, “Who am I?/Whose am I?” which also creates
a useful context to teach argument, literary devices, and
reading strategies. After first reflecting on the question
and how it applies to themselves, we use it to explore the
questions as they relate to Hamlet, who spends most of the
play trying to figure out who he is.
Ask yourself, “What do I want students to know and
be able to do at the end of this activity and at the end
of the semester? And what, then, is the most effective
means by which my students might learn that?” In my
freshman English class, for example, I want students
to be able to find their own books, use those books
to examine a topic from different perspectives, and
synthesize all that learning in a paper with proper
citations and quotations that support a central idea about
the subject they studied.
Design learning experiences using context-rich
activities such as simulations, case studies, performances,
investigations, projects, and productions. A social studies
teacher I once worked with, taught students through
simulations of other cultures’ activities; so, for example,

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
when studying India and its local governing structures,
called panchayats, he would have students take different
roles and conduct a panchayat, then discuss its principles
and how they differed from our own here in America. Such
activities often require careful preparation, including time
to rehearse what to say and create a dramatic environment.

Use different types of instruction

to teach skills and knowledge.
In her landmark study of adolescent literacy, Judith Langer (1999)
studied “beat the odds schools,” guided by the question, “What
did they do to achieve such consistent success?” While the study
focused on middle- and high-school literacy, the findings are, at
their heart, about effective instruction. To put it another way,
what are we trying to accomplish in any of our disciplines if
not some form of literacy? Langer identified three distinct types
of instruction, each of which has its place on the instructional
menu: separated, simulated, and integrated. Separated instruction,
Langer writes, “is what most educators would consider to be
direct instruction of isolated skills and knowledge.” By definition,
separated instruction is ancillary to the larger assignment, which
requires that students possess certain discrete skills or knowledge.
Separate instruction includes such content as rules, procedures,
specialized vocabulary, facts, or conventions.
Once students have learned the skill or knowledge, they
must put it to use. Otherwise, the learning will quickly wither
and vanish, as a language does if we do not continue to speak or
read it. Thus, simulated instruction asks students to use those rules
and conventions, words
and procedures, within
the larger context of
an assignment. Langer
curriculum basics •

explains that she chose

the word simulated
“because the tasks
themselves are specially
developed for the
purpose of practice.”

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
The third type, integrated instruction, requires students to “use
their skills and knowledge within the embedded context of a
large and purposeful activity, such as writing a letter, report,
poem, or play for a particular goal (not merely to practice the
skill) or planning, researching, writing, and editing a class
newspaper.” Langer concluded that “separated, simulated, and
integrated activities can all occur when needed within the ongoing
instructional program,” whereas ineffective schools favor one or
two of the approaches over the other. Here are some ways you
can incorporate different types of instruction into your class:
Ask yourself what skills you should teach through
separate instruction before you begin a major assignment,
read a text, or work on a new problem. An English
teacher, for example, prior to having students write a
persuasive essay, might explicitly teach (or review) the
elements of an effective argument.
Offer opportunities to practice and apply the skills
and information before students begin (or continue with)
the main assignment. If, for example, you are teaching
students how to cite sources on a research paper, you
might do a mini-lesson on how to cite the specific types of
texts and resources students have been using.
Evaluate the assignment—project, performance, or
product— for essential background knowledge you
should teach through direct instruction. A social studies
teacher, for example, might front-load certain terms and
information about the Depression before beginning to
teach it.
Stop throughout the larger activity or assignment
to address, through separate and simulated instruction,
the specific skills and knowledge students need for the
next step or which their current performance on the
assignment suggests they do not yet understand fully.
On a research paper, for example, students may need
guidance in how to choose, use, and cite quotations
effectively in their paper, or paraphrase those passages
they do not want to cite.


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Jim Burke

Provide meaningful, authentic opportunities to use

and improve upon skills and knowledge that show what
they have learned and allow them to extend their skills
and knowledge through independent and more advanced
application. In addition to writing actual research papers,
students might reduce these down to three-minute
presentations to learn or reinforce their public speaking

Develop fluency through variation

within lessons.
Years ago, while living in Tunisia, I had to learn to speak Arabic,
a beautiful but difficult language to learn. It was important that
I become fluent, however, because I was going to teach local
special education students for two years in Arabic. Returning
for a moment to Langer’s three types of instruction, I spent the
mornings engaged in separate and simulated activities, learning
everything from how to make specific sounds (that were very
curriculum basics •

unnatural to my American mouth) to how to use certain words.

In this controlled environment of the classroom, where words
were spoken carefully, precisely, slowly, we did fine and felt some
initial competence. It was only when we left school, however,
and entered the city to find lunch or go to the café to get coffee
that we realized how much more complex the language was:
accents, speed, omissions, unfamiliar words, tenses, local idioms, 85

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and much more combined to make us feel our ignorance. Each
day, after a lunch of humility on the streets, we would run back to
the classroom to share our stories, ask endless questions, and beg
for help. At night, exhausted, we urged our teachers, with whom
we had to live, to speak to us in English, but they never would,
smiling instead, and saying in Arabic, “I’m sorry, Mr. Jim, what
did you say? I didn’t understand you. Arabic only, please.”
Slowly, however, we moved from words to simple sentences;
and from these simple sentences to greater fluency of the language
thanks to, in my case, hours spent in cafés listening, talking,
asking—and blushing, for most mistakes seemed to somehow
be very embarrassing. Soon enough, school was over and we all
moved into our own towns, where we started schools, conducting
all our business in Arabic, and living hours away from anyone
else who could speak our own native language. Fluency was the
inevitable result, though it came only through hard work and the
patience needed to immerse myself in the greater complexities
of the language that I needed to master if I was to sound more
knowledgeable than a third grader. This same process—of moving
through the simple and into the complex, from the beginner
to the fluent user or speaker—applies to your own subject, to
the lessons you want your students to learn. Regardless of the
subject, what you most want is that your students be fluent in
your subject, to read, write, speak—to think—like a scientist,
historian, author, mathematician, and so on. The following
techniques offer some guidance in how to achieve this fluency:
Add complexity as students begin to show initial
mastery on formative assessments, varying the level of
difficulty as you go to improve dexterity with the material
or the skills students are learning. One obvious way
to do this is to arrange problems related to the subject
you’re teaching, from easiest to most difficult. Whether
it’s grammar or algebraic problems, Italian sentences or
scientific problems, students develop confidence and
intellectual fluency when each problem is more difficult
than the one that preceded it.


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Vary the means and materials students use, as
well as the configurations within which they work to
increase fluency and flexibility. Students should know,
for example, how to communicate the same message in
3,000, 300, and 30 words, all with equal effect. So, too,
should they know how to convey the same information
by writing, speaking, or creating multimedia products,
such as videos.
Increase the complexity or difficulty by adding new
elements to the problem, giving students additional
directions that amount to more cognitive balls to juggle.
When working on a paper, for example, it is helpful and
challenging to ask students to trim 100 words from the
essay in order to learn the value of concision in writing.
Vary the duration of the activity or exercise, asking
students to work at different speeds to improve not just
fluency but speed and stamina, two capacities that are
essential to success in certain academic situations. Some
timed writing activities, for example, help students
become adept at quickly generating ideas and writing
coherently about a text or topic.
Support your students in a variety of ways. Early on,
a math teacher might offer more guided instruction,
modeling a few problems and then asking kids to try.
As fluency emerges, students can do the work on their
own, reflecting in words afterward about the choices they
made, what strategies helped the most.
curriculum basics •


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Organize instruction into patterns
for maximum effectiveness.
“Teaching is a system,” argue Stigler and Hiebert (1999), a
conclusion they drew from analyzing mathematics instruction
in different countries around the world. Focusing on three
countries—Germany, Japan, and the United States—they noticed
recurring features within countries, for example, the way all
Japanese teachers would begin class or discuss a problem. Such
patterns “define different parts of a lesson and the way the parts
are sequenced.”

The German The Japanese The U.S. Lesson

Lesson Lesson
Four activities Five activities U.S. lessons
characterize the characterize the follow a sequence
German lesson: Japanese lesson: of four activities:
• Review previous • Review the • Review
material . previous lesson previous
• Present the topic • Present the material
and the problems problem for the • Demonstrate
for the day. day. how to solve
• Develop the • Have students the problem of
procedures work individually the day.
to solve the or in groups • Practice.
problem. • Discuss solution • Correct
• Practice. methods. seatwork
• Highlight or and assign
summarize the homework.
major points.

Stigler and Hiebert (1999). One key difference is that U.S. lessons devote
more time to “practicing definitions and procedures and less time to
developing details and rationales for procedures.”

The point here is not which pattern best describes your

teaching or which one is “best” (though the authors strongly favor
the Japanese instructional model when it comes to math) but
rather that there is a pattern to how we teach, one that Stigler

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
and Hiebert argue is culturally based, a result of not only your
teacher training program but 13 years of acculturation through
your own schooling. Thus, the important idea is to identify the
pattern your instruction follows and evaluate its effectiveness and
how it might be improved. Try the following ideas to help you
analyze and refine your instructional pattern:
Analyze your class over several days to identify the
instructional moves you make, when you make them,
how long each one lasts, and why you organize your
instruction into those steps, that sequence. After doing
this in my own class, for example, I realized that I tend
to lead with a short, focused piece of instruction (e.g.,
how to make predictions). We then practice and then
apply the learning to the main text we are studying and
then we move into a writing assignment or structured
discussion that ties it all together.
Identify the verbs that characterize
the different stages of your
instructional pattern, evaluating
each one in light of its intended
and actual effect. One sequence
I found common to most classes
is: generate, evaluate, analyze,
organize, and synthesize. In a history
class, for example, students might
generate causes and effects of the
movement, then evaluate which are
most important, then analyze how
these few events culminated in the
Compare your own pattern with other teachers you
respect, asking them if you can observe their class for a
curriculum basics •

day or more to study their pattern.

Evaluate the language you use to set up, teach, and
explain your curriculum, realizing that this is a crucial
but less visible element of your teaching pattern. In
working with student teachers, for example, I have
noticed that they often don’t explain how they want

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students to do an activity, perhaps because they are so
focused on remembering what to do. Next time, try
using an equation like this to explain: Today we are
going to do A for these reasons, and will do it this way,
because. . . . So let me get started by first showing you
what I mean . . .
Examine the time you spend on each element of the
pattern, asking yourself if this is an appropriate and
effective amount that adds up to a balanced instructional
pattern. Some teachers, for example, spend an inordinate
amount of time on vocabulary at the expense of the
larger curriculum and thus undermine the effectiveness
of their teaching.

Teach a range of skills and types

of knowledge.
Astleitner (2005) argues that “basic knowledge” consists of two
main types: declarative and procedural. Declarative knowledge
includes facts, concepts, and other such background knowledge
needed to complete a larger task, solve a problem, or understand
a text. The second type, procedural knowledge, includes rules and
conventions, the knowledge of how to follow certain techniques
and use tools. Consider the following suggestions when teaching a
range of skills and knowledge:
Ask yourself what skills, of any type, are necessary
to do what you ask. If, for example, you ask students to
generate, evaluate, or analyze—three examples of what
Sternberg calls “thinking skills”—you should ask whether
they know how to do that (or do it the way, or at the
level, you expect).
 odel and incorporate these different types of skills
for students, showing them not only how to do them
but that you, and others in different fields, use them
as well. When talking about how to read literature, for
example, I often narrate my reading, telling them how I
evaluate the importance of details and use these to make
inferences about character or tone in the text.

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Monitor the skills and knowledge you have taught
students lately and, if you find that you are repeating
yourself or not moving to higher levels in these areas,
reevaluate your instructional practices and assumptions.
When teaching a series of short stories, for example, it can
be easy to use the same techniques repeatedly, forgetting
that students need to use new tools or techniques to reach
higher levels of critical thinking.
Post certain declarative and procedural knowledge
on the board or poster paper for easy reference
throughout an activity that might require such skills
and knowledge. Keeping this information ever present
helps make it an easily accessible part of the students’
memory. In a biology class, for example, the teacher
might post the fundamental questions scientists use
when conducting experiments and tell students to use
that poster as a guide.
Move beyond basic knowledge into such advanced,
critical thinking as analysis and evaluation of problems,
texts, or techniques. When working with average kids, it
can be easy to assume that they cannot go higher than
comprehending the story or article you read; yet I find that
if given the tools to help them do so, students can always
do more analytical, advanced work on such texts. For
example, cause-and-effect analysis is pretty advanced, but
if given an organizer to direct their attention to the right
parts of the text, students begin to see how these elements
contribute to the meaning of the text.
curriculum basics •


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8. Organize Your
Instruction Around
Big Ideas and
Essential Questions
The very word question suggests an engaging, real purpose: one
goes on a quest to discover a place, a person, a solution, something
that helps to answer a larger, even more profound question.
Schools exist for the very purpose of helping both students and
teachers answer these big ideas and essential questions. The great
biologist E. O. Wilson once said in an interview that no one
comes into his class wanting to know about the cell, so he begins
his course by asking them, “ ‘Is sex necessary?’ which is a question
they all respond to and must discuss the cell in order to answer.”

Guiding Principles
1. U
 se essential questions and big ideas to frame and
guide your instruction.
2. C
 onnect materials and assignments to the big ideas
and essential questions.
3. I nclude the characteristics of effective curriculum
in your conversation.
4. C
 reate coherence and continuity within and across
5. C
 onsider ideas and questions from different


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Use essential questions and big ideas to frame
and guide your instruction.
Big ideas and essential questions are the engines that drive real
learning. They transform a passive class into a community of
active learners engaged in the quest to discover answers—their
own and others’—to questions we have never stopped asking.
Often the essential question begins as a topic the class will study.
Students might enter the American history class one day and
find the subject “War” written on the board, which is merely the
beginning; the questions they might generate could lead to an
essential question, such as “Is war necessary?” or “Is there such a
thing as a just war?” With these questions—which can be posed
before, during, or after—to light the way, the class will have a
useful framework within which to work and think as they read,
write, view, research, and discuss the subject. Embedded within
this inquiry will be important opportunities to teach specific skills
and background knowledge needed to answer the question.

In Understanding by Design (2005), Wiggins and McTighe

looked closely at the notion of essential questions. They
argue that a question is an essential question if it is
intended to:
1. Cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas
and core content.
2. Provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained
inquiry, and new understanding, as well as more
3. Require students to consider alternatives, weigh
evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers.
4. Stimulate vital, ongoing rethinking of big ideas,
assumptions, and prior lessons.
curriculum basics •

5. Spark meaningful connections with prior learning and

personal experiences.
6. Naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to
other situations and subjects.


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How can you use all these ideas to formulate your own
essential questions? Here are some suggestions:
Identify the core subject of the discussion, lesson, unit,
or course. In a history class, the subject could be an
idea, like revolution, or a specific instance, such as the
American Revolution.
Create an essential question about this big idea or
core subject. My wife, a wonderful social studies teacher,
organized a unit around the essential question, “Is war
ever just?”
By yourself or with your students, generate many
possible big ideas related to this core subject. Sticking
with the previous example of a just war, the social studies
teacher might, with her students, come up with such
essential questions as, “What is one’s obligation to his or
her country during war?”
Post your big idea or essential question on the board,
Web site, or classroom wall and return to it regularly. The
history teacher could, for example, set up a blog to which
she and her students could post new ideas and links as
they explore this “just war” question over time.


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Revisit and refine your essential question as new
questions arise, new discoveries unfold, and new
information comes in from ongoing research, discussions,
and reading. Returning to our running example here, the
history teacher might revise the question, in light of the
class discussions, to “When is war justified?”

Tech Note! Consider creating a blog or threaded

discussion about your big idea or essential question.
Students can post their thoughts and responses to remarks
made by you and others as the unit unfolds. The Civil War
might become an area of rich inquiry if you ask students to
have an online discussion in which they compare America’s
Civil War to other wars, including the war in Iraq. Students
and teachers could post links to news articles and other
resources as they discover them.

Connect materials and assignments to

the big ideas and essential questions.
It is not enough to formulate compelling questions about the big
ideas in your class. Such ideas are, in the beginning, like a bridge
that must lead somewhere; otherwise, without some sense of
destination, your kids will be stuck at the end, looking over the
brink of the unit, wondering where it all goes, what this was all
leading up to. They need a sense of culmination, something that
gives shape to all they learned along the way. In his book Engaging
Readers and Writers With Inquiry, Jeff Wilhelm suggests three “basic
steps for creating an inquiry-oriented classroom: (1) identify an
essential question and associated enduring understanding; (2)
identify a final project; (3) create a “backwards plan” (2007,
curriculum basics •

39). He defines a backwards plan as a “carefully ordered set

of activities that support students’ progress—text by text and
activity by activity—toward their ability to complete the final
project independently.” It is these “final projects” that show what
students have learned and create opportunities for you to teach the
standards you need to teach. Consider these suggestions for ways to
make these connections in your classroom and curriculum: 95

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Arrange a set of texts—nonfiction, fiction, poetry,
Web sites, films, graphics, artwork, and more—that
examine the subject of your inquiry from as many
perspectives as possible. An art history teacher, for
example, might, instead of studying work by period,
examine it by topic; thus, she might have her students
examine the depiction of beauty, for example, across eras
and genres, and supplement the art with critical readings.
Another might pair poems and paintings, asking students
to study the different ways of looking at the story of the
fall of Icarus, for example.
Provide alternative experiences related to the inquiry,
such as guest speakers, WebQuests, or field trips.
The art history teacher previously mentioned could easily
arrange for a WebQuest or field trips for a closer look at
the material.
Organize the class into groups, each with a different
aspect of the inquiry to examine and then share with
the class. For example, my colleague Morgan Hallabrin
has groups of sophomores, as part of a inquiry into why
people were silent during terrible times, study different
tyrants, whom they then relate to the characters in Lord
of the Flies.
Give students the choice from Wilhelm’s (2007) three
categories of “meaningful-making projects”: formal
writing, multimedia compositions, and social action
projects. Students in one high school, for example, used
literature circles to examine different groups in society,
one of which was people with disabilities. The unit—
which sought to explore the topic through interviews,
articles, films, and a novel—culminated in a service
learning project at a local service center for people with
disabilities and a subsequent paper reflecting on the
essential question based on their reading, discussions,
and experience.


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Keep returning to the essential question you have
posted on a poster or a wall, adding comments,
questions, associations, and new connections as the
work unfolds.

Include the characteristics of effective

curriculum in your conversation.
We love those days when the classroom is on fire with ideas,
everyone is contributing to the discussion, and new connections
are flying around like sparks. Yet the great conversation of one
period somehow doesn’t happen with the next class, or any other
period that day. Good instruction shouldn’t be an accident. It
should be designed, achieved through careful planning that takes
into consideration not only your students, but the material you
are teaching. Here are some suggestions:
Choose materials from a
range of perspectives and
sources that will support
extended and meaningful
conversations, but which
students will have time to
explore and discuss in depth.
Provide the support
students need in order to
Jim Burke

enter into and contribute

to these conversations.
This may mean giving students specific language in the
form of sentence starters or modeling for them how to
discuss certain material. In my AP literature class, for
example, students often do not know how to engage in
higher-level discussions of literature, so I will put on
curriculum basics •

the board phrasings like: Who did what to whom, for

what reason—and so what? The author did x in order to
achieve y.


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Show that you expect all students to have good ideas
to contribute to the conversation, by soliciting their ideas,
giving them time to develop the ideas, and helping them
generate ideas through modeling what you expect. The
government teacher, for example, might have students
examine one of the more recent Supreme Court cases and
write a response to it in preparation for a class discussion,
using that writing as a guide.
Choose subjects and texts that have some connection
to each other and the big idea at the center of your

Create coherence and continuity within

and across conversations.
Without coherence and continuity, your curriculum deteriorates
into a scramble of facts, a pile of pieces that don’t fit together in
any coherent, meaningful way. Here are some suggestions for ways
to create or maintain a coherent curriculum:
Ask yourself what subject or question is at the center
of your curriculum when planning and how does this
activity, text, or experience relate to it?
Keep a running narrative of connections and ideas
on the board during the class, allowing you and your
students to refer back to what you were doing or
discussing earlier in the unit or lesson.
Provide time for students to reflect on what they know
or have learned and, if time allows, invite students to
share their ideas in group or class discussions. I try to
use time at the end of the period, for example, to have
students write about what we did that day.
Begin with the end result in mind and, using that as an
objective, design your instructional sequence so it has a
logic to it; keep in mind the big ideas and essential skills
you want students to learn along the way in the context
of the larger instructional goal.


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Connect the current conversation with previous units
and the content of other classes when appropriate, to
create a greater sense of coherence across subject areas
or within your own class. When the health teacher
begins teaching the unit on healthy eating, it provides
an opportunity to return to the overarching theme
of making the right decisions, a big idea the teacher
introduced at the beginning of the semester and has
returned to throughout units on sleep, drugs and alcohol,
sex, and relationships.

Consider ideas and questions

from different perspectives.
In today’s global environment, students must develop the ability
to consider a subject from different perspectives. The medium
you use to explore a subject offers many angles of vision. A visual
medium like video will inevitably differ from words on a printed
page or a dramatic performance. By bringing in these different
and sometimes conflicting perspectives, you teach your students
not only to navigate their way through the real world, but hold
in their mind conflicting ideas and retain the ability to function,
something Scott Fitzgerald said was the true measure of a person’s
intelligence. Here are a few suggestions for how to teach students
to consider an idea from different perspectives:
Require students to come up with several ways to
solve the same problem or interpret the same text; ask
them to examine and explain the process by which they
arrived at these alternatives. In a biology class, students
studying evolution can create their own unique animal,
explaining how its different features illustrate evolution.
When they finish, the biology teacher could ask them to
curriculum basics •

explain how they came up with the idea of a snake that,

in their vision of the future, flies and eats birds.
Incorporate into your curriculum a range of voices
on the same subject, in different media if possible. The
American history teacher can bring in readings from
the Harlem Renaissance along with excerpts from the

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Ken Burns documentary Jazz, along with primary-source
documents such as newspaper articles and journals.
Use a graphic organizer with a circle in the middle
for the subject or essential question, and different slices
radiating out. In each slice, students should take notes
on what the different sources say about the subject or
essential question you are trying to answer.
Ask students to consider how different groups­—
ethnic, cultural, gender, racial, economic—would
explain or respond to an event, idea, or text. In a social
studies class this might mean asking students to examine
how different groups of people saw an event like the
Holocaust or how different groups would respond to
certain economic policies. In a science class, it could
involve asking what ethical concerns might arise
for different groups as part of a discussion about, for
example, genetic engineering.
Bring different perspectives in through alternative
versions of a text. In English, for example, I will have
students read as many as four different translations of
a particular scene in Homer’s Odyssey comparing how
each translator creates a different characterization of
Telemachus, son of Odysseus.

Tech Note! The growing media universe provides

a dazzling array of perspectives, some highly
specialized and others entirely inappropriate. Look for
opportunities to expand the array of perspectives
through different media. I created a “digital textbook”
to allow my students to do this.


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9. Help Students
Make Connections
Our brains are not unlike the old switchboard operators, in one
key sense: Our brain, upon receiving new information, responds
by thinking, “I’ll connect you right now,” to whatever you know
or have experienced in the past regarding a particular subject.
Unlike a switchboard, which was limited in the number of
connections it could make, the brain has a virtually inexhaustible
capacity to learn, thanks to its ability to detect patterns and
make approximations, to self-correct and learn from experience
by analyzing external data and reflecting on its processes, and
to create without limits (Caine and Caine 1994, 3). In Making
Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, Caine and Caine
wrote that the brain is predisposed to “search for how things make
sense, to search for meaning in experience. This translates into
the search for common patterns and relationships. It is a matter of
finding out how what is being learned relates to what the learner
already knows and values and how information and experiences
connect” (4). The authors identify two key components of brain-
based learning that have important implications for instruction:
Teachers must design and orchestrate lifelike, enriching, and
appropriate experiences; and they must [ensure] that students

Guiding Principles
1. Generate a variety of types of connections.
2. Help students make—and extend—connections.
curriculum basics •

3. Make relevant, appropriate, and timely connections.

4. I dentify opportunities for possible connections when
planning lessons or teaching.
5. U
 se connections to improve comprehension, increase
engagement, and enhance memory.

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process experience in such a way as to increase extraction of
meaning” (8). Your job, then, is to figure out what those key
connections are and design lessons that will help kids not only
make them but learn how to do so on their own in the future.

Generate a variety of types of connections.

The most familiar connections involve making connections
between the text and yourself, to other texts you have read or
are currently reading, and to the world at large.
Connecting what students are learning to essential questions
or big ideas, as mentioned, improves learning, motivation, and
recall. For example, a social studies teacher and I had students
study several different cultures in the midst of change. My
colleague, Frank Firpo, had students make connections to the
central question of how best to govern a diverse society, reading
various texts and watching certain films. As the English teacher,
I had them reading literature from these different countries,
written in different eras and perspectives, all of which was
chosen for its relationship to the essential question. Here are
some other ways to include different types of connections:
Use graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams, to show
similarities and differences between different texts on
the same subject. In a health class, for example, students
make connections between their own diet and the diet
of people from other cultures, organizing their findings in
a Venn diagram, then synthesizing these into a piece of
academic writing.
Generate questions individually or as a class,
specifically designed to make connections of one type or
another. In a history class, for example, students compare
the French Revolution to both the American Revolution
and, in more modern times, the Communist revolution
in China. Or, in an English class, advanced students
study the elements of tragedy, then make connections
from different texts (e.g., Oedipus, Antigone, Hamlet) to
these tragic elements and between the texts themselves.


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Prepare study guides, anticipation guides, or advance
organizers with questions that solicit different types of
connections. When studying Lord of the Flies, for example,
my students complete an anticipation guide made of
examples they must define as evil or not, which serve to
generate a working definition of what evil is and is not,
which they can then apply to the novel.
Ask students to use some form of guided or structured
note-taking strategy that requires them to make various
kinds of connections while they read, discuss, or investi-
gate. Students in a science class, for example, could use a
three-column format for cause-and-effect notes, writing
“Event (Cause)” atop the far left column, “Effect” in the
middle, and “Implications” in the third.
Create a chart of the different types of connections
students should be able to make and ask them periodi-
cally what other types of connections they might be able
to make. For instance, after a discussion of text-to-text
connections, you might ask them what connections they
might make to the recent news about global warming or
health trends, thereby challenging them to connect in-
school knowledge with the world outside.

Help students make—and extend—

While the brain naturally tries to identify patterns and make
connections, academic subjects are not always intuitive. Making
connections often requires some cognitive structure (e.g.,
comparing and contrasting) or language (e.g., x reminds me of y
because of z) if students are to generate a meaningful connection
they can articulate or that they can extend to reveal a deeper
curriculum basics •

understanding. Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) found

that “presenting students with explicit guidance in identifying
similarities and differences enhances students’ understanding of
and ability to use knowledge” (15) as does asking students to do so
independently. They also found that “identification of similarities
and differences can be accomplished in a variety of ways,” by using
four different “forms: comparing, classifying, creating metaphors, 103

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and creating analogies” (16). Here are some other specific ways to
help students make and extend connections:
Model for students how to make the kind of
connections you want them to learn; this includes
modeling the process and language you use, the questions
you ask, then discussing the process in a way that
they can understand and repeat. A health teacher, for
example, makes a connection between the current unit
on the brain and the previous unit on diet, writing an
equation on the board—x causes y because of a, b, or
c—that shows the linguistic format of the comparison
she wants to make to how the brain and body respond to
what we put in them.
Ask students to create different metaphors and
similes to more accurately represent or extend their
connections. What begins as a text-to-self connection
(e.g., this character and I are different because…) can
then evolve into a more sophisticated connection when
you use a metaphor (e.g., Ophelia is a puppet in the
hands of those around her).
Create a three-column poster with sentence starters
students can use to make different types of connections
like the one below. Then have students choose the one
they like most and use that to write a response or formal

World Self Other Texts/Lessons

__ is similar Though not exactly Though not exactly
to ___, in that the same, that the same, that
they both ____. character/moment/ character/moment/
event reminds me event reminds me of
of when I ______. one in another text

Make connections to tests by asking students to

create sample test questions like those they might
encounter on in-class or standardized tests. Extend
this form of connection by asking them to create not

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only factual questions, but more advanced, analytical
questions or even essay questions.
Use Web sites that foster the making of connections.
For example, a Web site at Emory University pairs poems
with the paintings that inspired them, enabling students
to compare and analyze the two. (

Make relevant, appropriate,

and timely connections.
Not all connections are created equal. We have all had the
student who is quick to raise his hand with some “connection”
he is eager to share, only to find it is some wild non sequitur,
such as when Tony asked me, in the middle of discussing Of
Mice and Men, “Mr. Burke, do you think Barry Bonds is really
taking steroids?” Nor are we entirely innocent ourselves. Often,
in an effort to bring some personal color to the content, we tell
some story which, by the time we finish, leaves us—along with
our befuddled students—wondering how we ever thought that it
related to the subject at hand. The point is, if connections are
to be effective, they must work, must serve some instructional
purpose. Connections, like similes, must also be based on things
we understand; otherwise they create confusion instead of clarity.
Connections also need to happen at the right time, while the
subject is at hand. The only exception might be if, while planning
your class that night, you decide that the day’s discussion revealed
that students still do not understand. In that case, you might
come in the next day and offer some new connections. Say, for
example, you realize your students still do not understand the
idea of supply and demand. You might come in the following day
with a brief demonstration based on cards they played with as
curriculum basics •

kids (e.g., baseball, Pokémon or Magic cards) in which you ask

them why some cards are more valuable than others. Finally, it is
essential to make connections between what students are learning
and why it is important. Here are some other possible ways to
make such connections:


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Draw a continuum on the board with “Relevant” at one
end and “Irrelevant” at the other, and hatch marks in
between. As you or students raise possible connections,
you can evaluate how relevant or appropriate they are,
using this continuum, developing criteria as you go.
As time goes on, you can fill in descriptors to help
clarify and illustrate the different degrees of relevance or
importance. In a biology class, for example, when teaching
students to evaluate the connections between different
elements, students could start by generating categories
(e.g., color, movement, shape, texture, number) they
could use to make possible connections between one
slide and the next, or a collection of data from different
stages in a process.
Teach students to ask themselves—by gently asking
the question first yourself—how their connection relates
to the point at hand, or why they think it is important.
Such gentle challenges demand that students defend and
elaborate on their connections, providing, if possible,
examples or evidence to support their thinking. For
example, in English a student might ask if there is any
connection between kids today and Holden Caulfield in
The Catcher in the Rye. I would then ask how that relates
to the book we are studying, asking a series of clarifying
questions that lead to the explanation that the student
believes Salinger was offering a commentary on youth in
society at large, which makes the book as relevant today
as it was in its own historical context.
Create a three-column chart with “Past,” “Present,”
and “Future” such as the one opposite. Add to it
examples over time, then have students synthesize it
in a piece of writing once it seems fairly complete. An
economics teacher, for example, would have students
make connections about work in our society to better
understand how it has changed and is likely to change
in the future.


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The World of Work
Past Present Future
• Little formal • More formal • Return of work
education education to American
needed needed workers, but at
• Greater • Fewer lower pay
emphasis on manual labor • Increased
skilled and jobs available knowledge of
manual labor (and those technology
• Focus on local pay less than needed for any
(American) in the past) job
production, • Rapid rise in • Rise in number
creating jobs outsourcing of women in top
• Women have of jobs positions based
limited role to other on increased
in workplace countries and numbers
(except during automation graduating from
WWII) college

Keep in Mind We cannot discuss making connections

without emphasizing the important opportunity to
connect what students are studying to their own culture.
At the same time, it is equally crucial to realize that when
we make connections between one thing and another,
we often assume certain experiences are common to all.
Consider beforehand whether the connection you intend to
make will be accessible and useful to all students; if not,
curriculum basics •

ask them to come up with their own or choose a more

familiar comparison.


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Identify opportunities for possible connections
when planning lessons or teaching.
We call them things like “teachable moments” or “windows of
opportunity.” Some must be created through carefully designed
planning; others must be recognized, often in the heat of the
moment. Both are important and valid, but only one can be
planned for; the other often blindsides the teacher, raising
unsettling and unexpected questions. Still, in the midst of that
distress is the seed of a powerful question that students want to
discuss, a connection they need to make between what you want
to teach and they want to learn. In his observations of a high
school English class, Intrator (2003) describes a teacher named
Mr. Quinn, who touches briefly on the issue of language, and the
use of the N-word in particular, when introducing The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn to his students, but tells them they will discuss
the word later, in a subsequent class. The kids, however, are not
having it; they immediately jump in to make connections to
other books (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird) and their own personal
experiences (e.g., playing basketball with people of different races).
Faced with this incendiary situation, Mr. Quinn “encouraged
the kids to slow down and think,” posing questions to help them
clarify and extend the connections they were struggling to make
in the heat of the discussion. On subsequent days, Mr. Quinn
prepared connections he wanted them to make in advance. He
brought in an article about a school where African-American
parents wanted to ban Huck Finn, in order to make connections to
the class’s recent conversation about race as well as the discussions
about the Constitution he knew were taking place in their
American history class. Here are some suggestions to help you
anticipate and prepare for such connections:
Consult the state standards for key instructional
content in the material or unit you will teach, then plan
to give special attention to those elements as they arise.
Evaluate the content for potential controversies,
tensions, problems, or topics that lend themselves to
important discussions about students’ own lives, other
material they have studied, or the world at large. When
we read Oedipus the King, for example, there is a passage

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in which the chorus speaks boldly to the people of
Athens about the loss of faith in the gods; I use this as
an opportunity to invite a discussion about the role of
religion and faith in our own society and their individual
lives. While such a discussion is always excellent, it is
nonetheless fraught with potential tensions, which I must
anticipate and be prepared to address.
Monitor class discussions or interactions, looking for
those moments when students get fired up about some
issue, event, or idea; try to help them work through those
connections to arrive at a new understanding of the
material. For example, one time in my English class we
were discussing some novel and the action within it, when
a student enthusiastically said to the class, “This is just like
the stuff we were learning in biology this morning, isn’t
it?” My role then was to help him explain and elaborate
upon that connection, which others did as well, resulting
in a very rich exchange.
curriculum basics •

Bring in material from outside of class that invites

powerful connections to what you already intended to
teach. Incorporate this material—an article, a clip from
a film or television program, a photograph—deliberately
and carefully into your lesson, using it to help students
make connections.

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Assign specific students the role, whether in full-class or
group discussions, of looking for and making connections
for the class. Such students are responsible for raising
questions about possible connections, which the class can
then consider on its own.

Use connections to improve comprehension,

increase engagement, and enhance memory.
At the end of the day (or the period!), we want our students
to understand and be interested in, and remember what they
study in our class. Returning for a moment to the analogy of
the brain being like a switchboard, you can easily imagine that
every time you help a student make a connection (and, in the
process, teach her to make it herself in the future) she will
understand and remember it better. A more modern comparison
might be to compare your brain to the Internet: everything in
there is linked, and the more you activate those links, the better
you understand how to use the site, how to navigate your way
around the Internet; what’s more, the more you activate those
same links, perhaps using them in different contexts, the better
you remember them. Eventually, through this increasingly dense
network of actual and conceptual links (e.g., connections) you
see the smaller lines that tie ideas and information together and
thereby grow the tree of knowledge inside your brain. When the
brain makes these connections, when it figures things out, when
it creates or recognizes new patterns, it lights up with pleasure,
actually creating a chemical basis for key memories that makes
them easier to retrieve. Thus, the more you allow students to
connect what they know and care about to what you teach, the
more pleasure they will find in your classroom. Here are some
suggestions for ways to improve comprehension and memory,
while also increasing motivation to learn and succeed:
Pose hypothetical questions that enable students to
bring in what interests them. For example, ask kids
how someone (e.g., a historical figure, a character from
a favorite novel or film) would respond to a certain
situation, question, or problem.

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Bring in film, music, and art so that students can
examine how an idea can be treated in different times,
by different people, in different media. I have shown my
students five very different paintings depicting Ophelia’s
drowning, leading students to make connections between
the paintings and the original text.
Offer questions you know will intrigue them and,
ideally, create emotional responses. Questions based
on similes can be especially effective. A health teacher
could as part of a unit on viruses, pose the question,
“How is MySpace like a virus?” or “How is a relationship
like a dance?”
Invite kids to create dramatic interpretations and
adaptations of historical events, literary texts, or
interpersonal scenarios; as part of the process, they
should explain how the people in the enactment relate
to the subject or texts they are studying, to other
curriculum basics •

material they have studied, or, to their favorite subject—



The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
10. Design Lessons and
Units for Maximum
Learning and
Great lessons are designed, not found; created, not bought. They
draw on your knowledge not only of the subject, but your students.
The best lessons combine both art and science. Recent research
has given us many insights into effective instruction, elements
we can incorporate into lesson designs. Marzano, Pickering, and
Pollock (2001) identified nine instructional strategies, all based
on extensive research, which improve student achievement across
content areas and grade levels. They are:
• Identifying similarities and differences.
• Summarizing and note taking
• Reinforcing effort and providing recognition
• Homework and practice
• Nonlinguistic representations
• Cooperative learning
• Setting objectives and providing feedback
• Generating and testing hypotheses
• Cues, questions, and advance organizers
The point is that when designing lessons, you must be
deliberate, purposeful in your planning; otherwise, to quote
Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going,
any direction will take you there!” I tend to sketch out the
month ahead, blocking off the upcoming week in more depth,
and carefully planning each day the night before, based on what
happened that day. Janet Allen (2007) offers a useful structure
that helps teachers create effective lessons:


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Guiding Principles
1. F
 ocus on desired outcomes when designing
instructional sequences.
2. A
 lign your instruction and assessments with the
appropriate standards.
3. C
 reate lessons that will motivate and engage all
4. Cultivate independence through instructional practices.
5. Teach for understanding.

The purpose of this lesson is to help students learn to

_____________________ in order to _______________
by using _____________________. I will know they have
learned it when _____________________.
Design must always take into consideration the user, which in
our case means the student. Motivation and engagement are crucial
challenges for all teachers today, who face arguably the most diverse
classrooms in our country’s history. Cushman (2003) asked students
what advice they had for teachers trying to plan effective lessons,
lessons that would not only help them understand but motivate
them to learn. While not all of their recommendations are specific
to design, they all have implications for either the structure of the
lesson or its content. Students recommend:
• Be passionate about your material and your work.
• Connect to issues we care about outside of school.
• Give us choices on things that matter.
• Make learning a social thing.
curriculum basics •

• Make sure we understand.

• Respond with interest when we show interest.
• Care about students and their progress.
• Help students keep on top of their workload.
• Show your pride in our good work.
• Provide role models to inspire us. (2003)

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When Should We Do That?: A Planning Chart by Students
Time of Day A good time to… A bad time to…
or Year
First week • Give a quick quiz to • Joke around; be too nice
of school see what students • Judge; yell
• Assign homework
• Get to know students (you’re just getting used
• Tell students about to school after summer)
• Make rules with
• Introduce the
First thing in • Have something • Give a big test
the morning active to wake • Give a lecture
people up
• Have gym
• Discuss, not write
Before lunch • Give a lecture • Do activities that deal
about something with food (makes you
important hungry)
• Do a fun activity; an • Talk about disgusting
educational movie, stuff
or an outdoor • Have major projects
• Give a test
• Have gym
• Have a long talk with
• Read and write a hungry student
After lunch • Write • Give a lecture
• Give a test • Do physical activities
• Exercise, have fun, (disagreement on this)
play games before • Do nasty projects like
working dissection
Last period • Have discussions • Have a test (not focused,
• Watch a serious ready to go home)
movie • Give a load of homework
• Do some group (other classes have
work already given it)
• Have recreation or • Give a speech or a
gym lecture

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Beautiful • Have class outside • Send students out alone
day • Do something • Stay in and watch a
educational in the movie
park • Stay in the classroom
• Read or do activities • Read from a dull
outside textbook
Day before • Have a makeup day • Give a major test
a holiday • Write about • Start a new subject or
break different things project
students are doing • Give homework
• Have a party
Day after • Review previous • Give a test or quiz
a holiday work and get into • Have homework due
break new subjects
• Give a big project
• Talk or write about
College • Give time in • Assign lots of homework
application school to help with • Give tests
deadline applications
During • Do quick prep • Give homework or
standardized reviews using projects
tests games or old work • Give other tests
• Bring snacks
Senior • Do free reading or • Introduce new topics
spring writing • Give other tests
• Do a senior project
Last week of • Have parties and • Give hard, new, serious
school trips work
• Have • Have an important test
curriculum basics •

project exhibitions
• Evaluate the course
Cushman (2003). From Fires in the Bathroom


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Finally, effective lessons today must be aligned with the
standards you are required to teach. While some see such
requirements as obstacles or constraints, effective teachers follow
these guiding principles to create lessons that are both standards-
based and engaging.

Focus on desired outcomes when designing

instructional sequences.
Backwards planning, which you have read about earlier, asks
teachers to begin with the end in mind, then make instructional
decisions that lead to that result. This approach asks you to
evaluate what you want students to know, understand, and be
able to do. It also asks you to consider what means will be most
effective in achieving that end, as well as what evidence you
are willing to accept that they have learned it. When using a
literature textbook in my freshman class, for example, I must ask
what “take-aways” I want for my students after they finish reading
a collection of texts. I could say that the reading and what they
learn along the way is justification enough; but that leaves
learning to chance and provides no assurance of a meaningful,
productive outcome. Thus, I begin by asking what I want the
students to learn (about themselves, the world, the subject, the
texts themselves, and such other areas as writing and grammar),
then arrange the texts in the order most suitable to that end
(e.g., from easiest to most difficult, but all related to the subject
of survival). Part of my challenge is to create an instructional
context that will allow them to explore the subject through a
range of types of text; to that end, I transform the subject—
survival—into an essential question that all the texts answer in
different ways: What does it take to be a survivor? I look at a
list of text types, like the one opposite, I can use to explore the
subject, all of which will provide opportunities to teach them
what I want them to know and be able to do.
When planning your own lessons, use the following suggestions
to help you determine and teach the desired outcomes:
Provide a clear, defensible rationale that is
educationally sound for any content you teach, and any
activity students do. When teaching writing, for example,

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
I point out that the ability to write
well is consistently identified as one Text Types
of the biggest factors in success in to Consider
professional fields. Critical/
Ask yourself how any given step analytical texts
in the instructional sequence relates Myths/tales
to or will help to achieve the stated Speeches
learning outcomes. Teachers often
like to incorporate discussion, for Primary
example, but unless it serves a specific
instructional purpose (e.g., to prepare Informational
them to write about the subject they charts,
have read about) it is unlikely to be statistics
effective. Photographs,
Reinforce for students what you
expect them to learn and be able Nonfiction
to do and how these outcomes will texts
contribute to their own success in Media: video,
school and life. When teaching film, audio
students about argument, for example, Short stories
point out to them that they are
surrounded by people—on television,
in newspapers, in political races, Fiction
through advertisements—trying to
persuade them to buy, believe, or
do certain things; then make clear that only those who
understand these techniques can defend themselves
against such tactics.

Align your instruction and assessments

with the appropriate standards.
curriculum basics •

“To guide curriculum decisions. . . teachers must know about

national, state, and local standards for student learning” (Darling-
Hammond and Baratz-Snowden 2005). In what Zmuda and
Tomaino (2001) call a “competent classroom,” an effective
teacher focuses on four components: essential questions,
content standards and instructional objectives, assessments, and
performance standards. . . [so that] every component of instruction 117

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
interlocks with every other component, producing a classroom
with a consistent sense of purpose and direction.” Content
standards “are fixed goals of learning that lay out what students
should know and be able to do—the knowledge and skills
essential to a discipline that students should learn;” performance
standards, on the other hand, “inform the student as to what his
or her work should look like. . . describe levels of performance
and/or evidence that the content standards have been met”.
Such standards are, if not aligned with the assessments, simply
noble goals instead of guiding lights for both you and your
students. “Alignment is the degree to which expectations and
assessments work together to improve and measure students’
learning” (Wisconsin Center for Education Research 2007). Such
knowledge has levels, which you can apply before, during, and
after the lesson to improve the design of your lesson:
Level 1 Recall and reproduction: Are you asking students
to learn facts, definitions, terms, or procedures they must
simply recall?
Level 2 Skills and concepts: Are you asking students
to actively process what they learn, transcending the
simplicity of Level 1, by requiring that they “classify,”
“organize,” “estimate,” “make observations,” “collect and
display data,” and “compare data”?
Level 3 Strategic thinking: Are you asking students to
reason, plan, provide evidence, and generally think with
greater complexity than they did in the previous levels?
Level 4 Extended thinking: Are you asking students to
use what they have learned at the previous levels to
make connections within the content area or across
disciplines? Are you asking students to evaluate different
approaches to the same problem, choosing the best
solution? (WCER 2007, 3)


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Lesson Planning Template
Lesson: __________________________________________________
Class: ______________________ Period: ______________________

Frame the Lesson: Position the lesson within you, curriculum and your
students’ academic needs: ____________________________________
Establish Skill Set: List specific instructional activities: ______________
Gather and Prepare: List the resources you’ll need and suggestions for
adapting lessons for your students: _____________________________

Teach the Lesson:
• Develop instructional language, moves, and prompts
• Subdivide lesson
• Identify discussion topics
• Provide tangible and concrete examples

Assess and extend:
curriculum basics •

• List strategies to provide extra support or extra challenge

• Assess understanding of lesson
• Reinforce and extend lesson

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Create lessons that will motivate
and engage all students.
In School Smarts: The Four Cs of Academic Success (Burke 2004),
I sought to answer a simple question: Who succeeds in school
and why? Of the four key domains–-commitment, content,
competencies, and capacities—it was the first, commitment,
that consistently emerged as most crucial. Others have found the
same, emphasizing the importance of that emotional connection
that allows students to lose themselves in their work, a feeling
we all hope for but rarely achieve in our students. Smith and
Wilhelm (2002) examined the literacy of adolescent boys and
concluded there were four main principles related to engagement:
“a sense of control and competence; a challenge that requires an
appropriate level of skill; clear goals and feedback; and a focus on
the immediate experience” (29). Focusing specifically on literacy,
Turner (1997) identifies three related but different characteristics
of instruction that promotes student engagement: “they provide
opportunities for challenge and self-improvement, autonomy, and
social collaboration” (187). When designing lessons, consider the
following suggestions for increasing engagement and motivation:
Evaluate why you are teaching something: If you
cannot provide a compelling rationale for the lesson
that would appeal to your students, they are not likely
to understand or be able to learn what you are teaching
them. In my senior English class, for example, when
introducing Oedipus the King and other tragedies, I show
a clip from the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in
the Room, which I use to raise the question of whether we
still have tragic figures and tragedies in our world today.
Without such connections, it seems as if we are studying
2,500-year-old plays about dead people who never existed
except on the page, something that to most seniors seems
a bit of a waste of time.
Consider what you are trying to teach: If it is not
engaging or connected to larger questions and concerns
your students have, it is unlikely they will engage or
learn. Reevaluate the texts, problems, or activities you


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
initially chose, asking if others would provide a more
meaningful challenge to your students.
Examine how you are trying to teach: Evaluate whether
the approach you are taking is effective in both preparing
students to succeed and engaging them in what they
are learning. If it is not effective, consider using a more
collaborative or interactive process through which they
can better understand and thus remember and use the
content. Reading and taking notes on Shakespeare’s
sonnets is one way to work with Shakespeare, but I find
I get much more engagement and better results when
I have them get into groups, then give each group a
transparency of the sonnet they must prepare to teach
the rest of the class in a presentation the following day.
This has the advantage of increasing engagement while
providing me a more localized context within the groups
to raise questions and teach them about Shakespeare’s
language, for example.
Remember who you are teaching: Consider the
audience for your lesson and whether your content and
approach are appropriate for these particular students.
This particular class may need a more social, active, or
innovative approach than past students. Solicit suggestions
from them about how they best learn. In my freshman
English class, for example, I noticed kids talking about
MySpace and other online worlds. I asked them if they
would like to use a threaded discussion to respond to the
story we read instead of taking notes as we had done in
the past. The result: increased engagement, more writing,
and dynamic discussions both in class and online.
Think about when are you teaching: Evaluate the time
of the day, the time during the period, and the point in
curriculum basics •

the year when you are teaching certain content. Some

periods during the day or times of year present special
challenges. Some teachers lead with content that would
be better used after an introductory or otherwise more
engaging lesson. Revise the assignment or change the
timing to increase engagement. For example, in my AP
English class, I have students who come from as many as 121

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five different English teachers junior year, all of whom
have their differences. I use the beginning weeks to create
a workshop during which we read short stories and focus
on creating a common vocabulary and set of practices for
reading, discussing, and writing about literature. Putting
this up front allows me to evaluate where they are and
create a culture of expectations that will get them were
they need to be.

New Teacher Note Many new teachers, eager to

put to use all they learned in their credential
program, jump straight to content in the first days without
realizing the importance of establishing a relationship and
helping students transition from summer into the new school
year. The lesson they wanted to use that first day is, no
doubt, a great lesson, but one that would be better if used a
week or two later when students have settled in and, thanks
to your efforts, developed a willingness to work for you.

Cultivate independence through

instructional practices.
The training wheels need to come off some time. At some point,
every student must go into the state test or even the real world
and put to use what they have learned. They cannot bring you
with them to work, nor will the state allow you to hold their hand
as your students take the exit exam. Yes, at some point, all this
instruction is supposed to lead to some autonomy, to the ability
to read, write, think, calculate, and investigate all on their own,
using what you have taught them as a guide. Vygotsky (1978)
introduced such a notion long ago in his zones of proximal
development (ZPD) model, which asserted that learners can learn
difficult material if provided guidance through the early stages of
the process en route to independent application. More recently,
Pearson and Gallagher (1983) developed what they called the
“gradual release of responsibility” model to capture the process a
learner undergoes on the way to fluency in three stages: teacher
regulated, supported practice, and student regulated. Wilhelm

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
offers a variation on this process: I do/You watch > I do/You Help
> You do/I Help > You do/I watch (2001, 11). Develop your
students’ independence by doing the following:
Provide appropriate and repeated demonstrations of
the expected academic behavior, narrating what you
are doing, how you are doing it, when you are doing it,
and why—as you are doing it.
Give students tools and strategies to use as they make
their initial efforts to learn the content or behavior. In a
social studies class, for example, the teacher might use a
tool like the KWL organizer when reading about material
he thinks students should know something about, even
if only through the movies.
Offer feedback—verbal, written, or visual—on their
performance which they can use to refine their actions
and strategies. When reading a stack of papers that are
not final drafts (especially when I am pressed for time),
I will keep a pad of paper handy and note common
patterns of error and success in the writing. Instead of
writing on each paper, I will come in and summarize,
usually with illustrating examples I have copied to a
transparency, and offer feedback collectively, through
my remarks and examples.
Allow students to apply what they have learned as
they choose; for example, after teaching students a
variety of note-taking or reading strategies, allow them
to choose which one is most appropriate for the current
Realize that as students do more complex work, they
will need further support before achieving the same
independence they had with material at lower levels. The
curriculum basics •

student who understood Romeo and Juliet as a freshman

will need additional guidance and instruction when
learning to read Hamlet as a senior, for the second is
much more sophisticated than the first.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Teach for understanding.
Once the standardized test is over and the worksheet turned in,
the question is: Do the students really understand what they
have learned? One can write a ten-page research paper, write
it in graceful prose even, and have no understanding of the
subject. Skills and knowledge are the foundations on which
such understanding is built, but they are not ends in themselves.
Perkins (1998) distinguishes between them this way: “knowledge
is information on tap. We feel assured a student has knowledge
when the student can reproduce it when asked… And if
knowledge is information on tap, skills are routine performances
on tap. We find out whether the skills are present by turning the
tap. To know whether a student writes with good grammar and
spelling, sample the student’s writing. . . . Understanding is the
ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows. To put it
another way, an understanding of a topic is a ‘flexible performance
capability’ with emphasis on the capability. . . . Learning facts can
be a crucial backdrop to learning for understanding, but learning
facts is not learning for understanding.”
When you visit the online iCan film festival created by
the San Fernando Educational Technology Team at http://sfett.
com/ you get a real sense of what understanding looks like. Here
students show, through their videos, not only their understanding
of how to use technology to craft a compelling short film, but
their knowledge of rhetoric, narrative, and the subjects, such
as poverty, the Iraq War, or eating disorders, that they are
investigating. Such productions are the culminating result of
lessons that not only demonstrate but develop understanding.
Yet not all instruction must be so high-tech: one science teacher
wanted to assess students’ initial understanding of the concept
of classification and so brought in the junk drawer from her
kitchen at home, telling kids to sort through it and come up
with a classification system that would account for everything in
it. Having established where they were, she set about teaching
them more sophisticated scientific systems, eventually giving
them a taxonomy of critical features to use when classifying their
subsequent findings in a research project (Perkins, 1998).
As this last example shows, teaching for understanding
does not preclude using direct or guided instruction to teach

The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
the skills and knowledge students need for the “performance of
understanding” (Perkins 1998, 42). Such performances create
a more authentic context in which to teach such skills and
knowledge, a context that makes the lessons more meaningful
and the student more motivated for now they see the material
as relevant, even urgent. My colleague Diane McClain, for
example, uses her Soundtrack of Democracy unit on great
American speeches to examine themes in American society that
students explore in detail, all the while learning about rhetoric,
grammar, style, and history. Such presentations develop students’
understanding of these strategies and devices, these elements and
skills, while at the same time providing an authentic context
in which to demonstrate their own understanding, through
performance, of these elements in their own speech.
You can teach the necessary skills and knowledge while also
teaching for understanding if you:
Decide what you want students to understand, know,
and be able to do before you begin the unit, spelling it out
in clear language for yourself and your students. I try to
include these outcomes on the handout for any significant
assignment. Here is an example from an independent
reading assignment in my freshman English class:

This assignment is designed to:
• Improve your reading speed, comprehension,
and vocabulary
• Expose you to a wider range of authors
and subjects
• Develop your identity as a reader
• Help you explore a subject in some depth
over the course of the semester
• Write an essay about one subject that
curriculum basics •

draws from multiple sources


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
Make available a range of possible means for students
to demonstrate their understanding including, but not
limited to, portfolios, performances, productions, or
problems solved. When I have students with certain
types of learning difficulties, I will allow them to meet
with me and discuss a book they read instead of writing
about it under the pressure of time.
Ask students to demonstrate their degree of
understanding by first performing or producing some
appropriate task, then analyzing it through verbal or
written annotations in which they identify the different
elements of, for example, an effective argument, where
they used them, how, and why.
Return to these big ideas, understandings, and
essential questions throughout the unit, semester, and
even the year, instead of treating the curriculum as a
linear experience. Such recursive teaching reinforces
and deepens understanding.
Analyze the “performance of understanding” for key
skills and knowledge found in the state standards and
provide overt instruction and assessment of those areas,
connecting them to the larger ideas contained in the
unit. In English, this might mean looking at the different
possible organizational patterns by which one might
convey information and deciding which one (or two)
are most appropriate to this assignment, then teaching
students how to apply these skills and knowledge in
this context.


The Teacher's Essential Guide: Effective Instruction © Jim Burke, Scholastic Teaching Resources
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